Tag Archives: Historical Novel Society

The Joys and Sorrows of (Writing) Historical Fiction

This post originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 September 2017.

A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”

He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?

Sometimes I do find myself envying my contemporary fiction peers, who seem to have a much easier job of it. Historical novelists could pump out books a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to slow down for all that pesky research.

But even contemporary writers need to do research depending on the subject. If they’re writing about an unfamiliar field or area of expertise, or a different culture or geographical region, all of that takes investigation to get it right. But putting any of those issues two hundred — or two thousand — years in the past increases the extent and complexity of research by orders of magnitude.

Consider Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, a bestseller that received the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for a debut, along with many other accolades. The novel is astonishing in its sweep: not only does it span three hundred years, it spans three hundred years in parallel on two continents, inhabits multiple cultures on both continents, and changes the characters it follows with each new chapter. Even for an historical fiction writer, that’s an exceptionally tall order. But that scope was critical to the book she wanted to write, which shows the reverberations and repercussions of slavery across time, geography, culture, social fabric, and — most importantly —people.

When it comes to research, the danger for writers of historical fiction is knowing when to say when. Most learn to let the story drive the research, doing just-in-time homework to understand historical context or events, and to fill in the details.

The other peril of research is the author’s being so proud of what she’s learned (or having spent so much time learning it) that she wants to shoehorn it all in. The mark of a talented writer is that the story is infused with a sense of the time and place, and that any details are organic to the story and placed correctly in time — so that a character in 1920 would button a garment rather than zip it.

The trick for authors is to understand for themselves what something looked like, how it worked, or how it was used at that time so that the words they choose are appropriate. No contemporary fiction author would describe what a telephone looks like, and neither should an historical fiction author, but he needs to be capable of picturing the phone his character is using, and to be aware, for example, that the phone is connected to a party line.

Historical fiction tends to go in and out of popularity over time. Twenty years ago, when Richard Lee established the Historical Novel Society (HNS), he says, “it was a genre everyone said was dead. Or if not dead, it was at the nadir of fashion.” Now, a reader can find historical fiction in every single sub-genre imaginable: romance, mystery, horror, thriller, YA, LGBT, sci-fi, and fantasy. Westerns are by definition historical, as is Steampunk, a relatively new addition to the histfict cannon. Of course, there is also the “alternative history” sub-genre of historical fiction.

I write reviews for the Historical Novels Review, HNS’s quarterly publication. Each issue contains hundreds of reviews, organized by general time period, beginning with prehistoric, and moving through biblical, classical (that is, ancient Greece or Egypt) into the centuries from first through twentieth, then on to the hard-to-categorize, such as “timeslip” — think Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A committed reader could read nothing but Edwardian or Regency-era fiction and never run out of books; I’ve heard (but have no evidence myself) that books of U.S. historical fiction, particularly early to mid-twentieth century, are especially “hot” right now.

So when people tell me, “Oh, I love historical fiction,” it’s a natural impulse for me to ask, “Yes, but what kind?”

For anyone asking why an author would bother with the extra labor that comes with historical fiction, part of the answer may be that there is a huge market for it. But for most writers, I think, it’s that even the most cursory glance backwards can generate a lifetime of compelling story ideas. So often, a writer will catch a snippet of an historical account and just know there’s a great story in there, with just “a little” digging. Author Carrie Callaghan saw a seventeenth-century self-portrait of Dutch painter Judith Leyster hanging in the National Gallery of Art. Carrie’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own (due out next November from Amberjack Publishing), is a direct result of that encounter.

I look for ideas everywhere.  I review a lot of non-fiction, both for HNS (yes, even the fiction guys read non-fiction sometimes) and for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Often, I choose books because I think I’ll find interesting historical information that might be useful later, such as in Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, and Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, by William M. Fowler Jr. — and, yes, I did, in both cases.

For myself, I write historical fiction to remove myself — and, I hope, my readers — from the clutter of the known, everyday “here” and to go to a different place, to be, as it were, transported. I also find that it’s sometimes more effective to make an observation about the lives that we live today by approaching that point from a remove, through the reflection of history. My current project takes place in the U.S. of the early twentieth century, but I’m drawn to the specific topics because of the parallels to today’s social, cultural, and political climate. Writing a contemporary story about these same issues, while we’re in the midst of them, would, to my mind, feel too raw, and would overshadow the story I want to tell. Coming at a subject obliquely allows readers to put their guard down and simply let the story seep in.

And no matter what kind of fiction an author is writing, any reader knows: we just want a good story.

Book Review: The Weight of Ink

This review originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

In modern-day London, a cache of mid-17th-century papers is found, apparently untouched for three centuries, in a house under renovation. The Hebrew and Portuguese writings bring in Jewish-history expert and ailing academic Helen Watt to assess their provenance. Pressed to assist her is stalled American Ph.D. candidate Aaron Levy. Temperamentally mismatched, they nonetheless begin to uncover the mystery of an anonymous scribe working for a blind rabbi in pre-plague London.

Rachel Kadish offers an impressive achievement here in her latest novel. She ties together complex concepts of metaphysics and theology from the days of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, along with a mid-20th-century love story set in Israel, and a modern-day academic treasure hunt. The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline for one that spends much of its time in a dark study or a research library.

The true central character here is Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Jewish woman whose family took refuge in Holland to escape Inquisition-wracked Portugal; she later finds herself in 1650s London serving as secretary to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Education for women was considered unseemly, and Ester’s work as a scribe renders her unmarriageable—a state she prefers. Ester’s wide-ranging intellect pushes her to read voraciously and ask questions, in particular about the nature of God, man, and the universe; those questions are extraordinarily dangerous.

Helen knows this is her last opportunity to redeem the choices that she’s made, and she and Aaron work against another academic team and her own worsening illness in a race to find and fit the last pieces of the puzzle in order to understand Ester’s true identity. The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.


Historical Novels Review Spring 2017 Issue

The following reviews originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

LILLI DE JONG, Janet Benton, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese

In her debut novel, Janet Benton believably imagines the speed with which a young woman’s life can change from safe, happy, and privileged to miserable and outcast. The titular character, Lilli de Jong, lives with her Quaker parents and younger brother in late 19th-century Philadelphia. But then her mother dies, a relative sweeps in to usurp her mother’s place beside her weak-willed father, and a young man staying with the family seduces Lilli before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh, taking Lilli’s brother with him. When Lilli’s black-hearted stepmother discovers her burgeoning pregnancy, Lilli finds herself homeless.

Benton has Lilli relate her story by writing in a series of notebooks, a technique that allows the main character to reflect on ideas and events in ways that would have been difficult in a straight narrative. On the other hand, as Lilli’s circumstances become increasingly fraught, it’s hard to imagine her having the time or inclination to scribble out pages and pages of observations and events—with dialogue—as she attempts to find food, fend off villains, and care for her infant daughter.

To Benton’s credit, she doesn’t render caricatures of either good or evil. The headmistress of the Haven for Women and Infants is severe and exacting, but she is also dedicated to giving the young women in her charge the second chance that society is unwilling to grant. Lilli’s aloof employer, Clementina, is a talented musician who has been forced by convention into matrimony and motherhood; her disappointment makes her bitter and even cruel, but not inhuman. The same cannot be said for the rigid culture that dismisses the human dignity of those at its fringes.

MISS TREADWAY AND THE FIELD OF STARS, Miranda Emmerson, Harper/4th Estate

In 1965 London, successful American actress Iolanthe (Lanny) Green walks out of the theatre where she had been starring and disappears. Lanny’s dresser, Anna Treadway—unemployed when the starless show shuts down—feels compelled to search for the woman she soon realizes she doesn’t know very well.

Anna ignores repeated warnings to stay out of the investigation by the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, a tightly disciplined Irishman whose real name is Brennan. She finds a lead through Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, who joins Anna in the pursuit.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a consideration of identity: of the intentional and unintentional reinvention of identity, of the identity we project out to the world compared to the one we live with inside ourselves, and of how the world perceives us compared to how we imagine we’re perceived. This point is underlined when Aloysius suffers a beating by police and is coldly leveraged into becoming an informant, despite having committed no crime. “He realized now that the man he had become inside his head was far whiter and more handsome than the outer Aloysius… would never have been beaten… would never have had the experience of handcuffs.”

It also explores how often we disappoint ourselves and those around us for not being who we—or they—thought we were or ought to be. The most poignant example is Brennan’s relationship with his wife Orla, which is so filled with mutual disappointment they are incapable of speaking to each other.

In some ways, Lanny is too unevenly drawn to be entirely believable, and Anna’s past remains unsatisfyingly oblique, but Emmerson’s debut is a touching, thought-provoking read.

THE CUTTHROAT: AN ISSAC BELL ADVENTURE, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Putnam

Pity poor Justin Scott, who’s listed as the co-author of nine of the ten books in Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell Adventures series. One imagines Clive checking in every so often from his beach chair in St. Tropez to see how Justin is getting along with the latest installment. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be the marquee name.

However the work was portioned out, The Cutthroat represents a rollicking if scarcely believable turn-of-the-20th-century whodunit—or, more precisely, “who keeps doing it?” When the object of his missing person search turns up dead, Isaac Bell—principal investigator at the Van Dorn Detective Agency—promises the wealthy, distraught father that he will find the killer. Since the agency has offices nationwide as well as internationally, and is far better resourced than the police, Bell’s team is able to pursue an emerging pattern of grisly murders across time and geography that point inexorably back to—wait for it—Jack the Ripper. Bell focuses in on a set of suspects in a touring company of the play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” giving us ample opportunity to ponder the good-versus-evil struggle inside all of us.

The story steams across the county and over the ocean, and squeezes the most out of every bit of technology available to the modern age of 1911. For those of us not familiar with Books 1-9, there’s a handy “Who’s Who” at the front that dispenses with backstory. Though it strains credulity that the perpetrator—given his “day job”—could have pulled off 20-plus years of carnage, it’s a fun, page-turning romp.

Jenny’s Year in Reading, 2016

I know lots of readers make this a habit, and Goodreads actively encourages it, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to capture every book I’ve read during the year. And, sure, it would have been significantly easier if I’d simply noted each one as I read it, but scrambling to reconstitute the list on the last day of the year is so much more fun. Plus, I’m always amazed at the publications that put out their “Best of” lists way back in November or early December. What? I only just finished reading The Nix this morning!

Did I discover anything this year? I continue to be amazed at how many debut novelists show up as fully formed authors in thorough command of their voice. On the other hand, multi-published authors seem to suffer from an unwillingness by someone in authority to edit them. Also, I seem to read lots of relatively obscure books.

I’ve linked to any reviews I’ve written of the books listed, and I only noted the year if it came out before 2016.

My favorite book that should have gotten far more attention: They Were Like Family to Me by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner, 285 pp.) was originally titled In the Land of Armadillos. Changing the title could not have helped with marketing (though I guess my copy is now a collector’s item) but, under any name, it’s a set of beautifully interconnected short stories that left me a little shell-shocked and tingly, but in an entirely good way.

Other Stand-out Favorites:


Debut Novels:

  • Amour Provence, Constance Leisure, Simon & Schuster, 257 pp.
  • The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 355 pp.
  • Grief is The Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 114 pp.
  • The Guineveres, Sarah Domet, Flatiron Books, 352 pp.
  • Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 345 pp.
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 305 pp.
  • Hystopia, David Means, FSG, 320 pp.
  • The Mothers, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 275 pp.
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill, Knopf, 620 pp.
  • Surface and Shadow, Sally Whitney, Pen-L Publishing, 303 pp.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake, Scribner, 336 pp.

Short Story Collections:



Books from previous years that I finally read:

  • Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 767 pp.
  • The Color of Water, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2006, 295 pp.
  • Crabtown, USA, Rafael Alvarez, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2015, 441 pp.
  • From Watergate to Hugo Chavez: An Ex-Diplomat’s Memoirs, Gonzalo T. Palacios, AuthorHouse, 2009, 132 pp.
  • The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2014, 480 pp.
  • The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Perennial, 2010, 507 pp.
  • Old Souls, Tom Shroder, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 253 pp
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler, Knopf, 2015, 358 pp.
  • The Tide King, Jen Michalski, Black Lawrence Press, 2013, 361 pp.

Audiobook (+ print):

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, Adam Tooze, Viking, 2014, 644 pp. The sweeping breadth and fully coherent depth of this book is staggering, and I found listening to the audiobook invaluable to my overall retention and comprehension of the material that Professor Tooze weaves together seamlessly. At the same time, I loved having the hardcover, which I used to re-read passages and chapters I had heard on DVD.

Hands-down biggest disappointment:

Barkskins, Annie Proulx, Scribner, 736 pp. In addition to my review of this book, I wrote a blog entry about it called “When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and reading-filled 2017!

Historical Novels Review Summer 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.


A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account.

For the most part, the novel offers a standard narrative that follows both Jefferson and Hemings from childhood through their long-standing intimate relationship and beyond. It wrestles with the question of Sally’s level of consensual participation, as well as the contradictions between Jefferson’s philosophy and practice. Throughout the main narrative, however, is a series of flight-of-imagination vignettes: Thomas Jefferson watches a Hollywood movie of his life; an interviewer tapes a Q&A with Sally Hemings and her brother James; Thomas Jefferson sees his former lover, Sally Hemings, from across a crowded and lurching subway car.

Some of these work better than others, but they allow O’Connor to explore concepts and perspectives in ways the main narrative could not. A disturbing exchange between a female guard and the male prisoner (Jefferson) she is tasked with torturing demands that we contemplate how it is that anyone who buys and sells human beings is not considered evil.

Most affecting is Sally’s “confession,” related in snippets, in which she reflects upon the ways that perhaps she was a collaborator in an evil system, turning a blind eye to others’ suffering while she benefited from her status. Her confession culminates in the horror of the auction of 130 Monticello slaves, held after Jefferson’s death to help pay his significant debts. Unfortunately, that is an historical fact.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 8.43.02 AMTHEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME, Helen Maryles Shankman, Scribner

A compelling blend of folktales, magical realism, Nazi barbarity, and family history, They Were Like Family to Me offers a series of interconnected stories primarily set in 1942 in the small Polish town of Wlodawa (six kilometers from the Sobibór extermination camp), as the Nazis systematically empty it and the surrounding countryside of Jews.

What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal. Woven through the stories are talking dogs and horses, humans transformed into avenging beasts, a modern-day Golem sent as protector. How else to explain the unexplainable of the few Jews to survive the systematic slaughter at Wlodawa, in which “in three days, ten thousand lives vanished into smoke, like a colossal magic trick”?

Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts. The stories describe characters and events from different perspectives, and each tells a piece of the full story.

Two characters recur somewhere in every story: Willy Reinhart, Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, Wlodawa’s skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart, undeniably flawed but fundamentally “a decent man,” is determined to use his position, his talents, his legendary smile – “the smile threw its arm around your shoulders and called you friend” – to protect as many Jews as possible. Soroka, generous and well-respected, becomes Reinhart’s conduit to the people of Wlodawa.

The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.

*Note: They Were Like Family to Me was originally published under the title In the Land of the Armadillos.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 9.12.14 AMREADER, I MARRIED HIM, edited by Tracy Chevalier, William Morrow

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Charlotte Brontë knows, “Reader, I married him,” is the climactic sentence of Brontë’s book for the ages, Jane Eyre. Conceived of, edited by, and with a contribution from Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), this collection of stories is out in time to celebrate Brontë’s 2016 bicentenary, and it features wonderful writing by a cast of strong female authors, each contributing one of these “stories inspired by Jane Eyre.”

Inspired, that is, by both the book and the titular character, who – for many girls who are now women of a certain age – was the first strong, independent-minded female character in literature we ever met. She made an impression.

These stories make an impression too; each one is thoroughly engaging beyond the frisson of discovering how each author uses the shared springboard. One of the most thought-provoking is Susan Hill’s title story, “Reader, I Married Him,” which gradually reveals the identity of the historical character who is narrating, and demands that the Reader rethink probably knee-jerk assessments she may have about one of modern history’s most notorious and reviled home-wreckers. Helen Dunmore gives us “Grace Poole Her Testimony,” offering a decidedly different take on the ever-stoic Grace and her true role at Thornfield, while Salley Vickers paints a not-so-happily-ever-after picture from Mr. Rochester himself in “Reader, She Married Me.” Finally, Elizabeth McCracken’s story is a fully modern take on the construct of marriage as two men take their young son on a day trip in “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark.”

Just know that after enjoying this story collection, you’ll be certain to pull out your old, yellowed copy of Jane Eyre (mine is a Signet Classic from 1960) and enjoy it one more time.

When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.

Historical Novels Review Spring 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

Translation of LoveTHE TRANSLATION OF LOVE, Lynne Kutsukake, Doubleday

This touching and thought-provoking debut novel follows the storylines of several Japanese, Japanese-American, and Japanese-Canadian characters living—and sometimes barely surviving—in Japan during the post-Word War II American occupation. The stories weave together to create a wide-ranging, detailed portrait of the civilian Japanese experience before, during, and after the war.

Central to the story is General Douglas MacArthur. As one character observes, MacArthur seems almost to replace the emperor in the eyes of the Japanese people. In his role as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, MacArthur invites the Japanese to write him letters, and they respond in astounding numbers.

Pervading the novel is a constant sense of dislocation. Aya, a Canadian schoolgirl whose mother died while the family was interned, has been “repatriated” to Japan with her father but speaks virtually no Japanese. Corporal Yoshitaka “Matt” Matsumoto is a second-generation American who joined the army from an internment camp to prove his loyalty, and, now part of the occupation force, uses his rusty language skills to translate those letters to MacArthur. Matt’s coworker and fellow American citizen Nancy Nogami was visiting relatives in Japan in December 1941, and so was never allowed to return home. For the native Japanese, the social and cultural dislocation they face in their occupied country is seismic and stark.

This seismic shift in culture is most clearly illustrated through the stories of Fumi, who gradually befriends Aya, and Fumi’s sister Sumiko, who naively accepts employment at a dancehall, which immediately turns into indentured servitude. When Sumiko can no longer return home, Fumi and Aya write a letter to MacArthur to beg for his help in finding her.

Kutsukake has created a nuanced, empathetic but unsentimental story that considers what it means to rebuild an identity, both as an individual and as a nation.

The RisenTHE RISEN: A NOVEL OF SPARTACUS, David Anthony Durham, Doubleday

In David Anthony Durham’s novels of ancient Rome, Rome plays the villain. Pride of Carthage mapped Hannibal’s attempt to overthrow that seat of world power, and now The Risen traces the great slave uprising lead by the gladiator Spartacus. Credit the power of Durham’s storytelling that it doesn’t matter that readers already know the outcome of both ill-fated campaigns; the journey to get there is absolutely worth the trip.

Durham’s approach to the story is both inventive and well-suited to the task. He’s broken the book into three sections, each made up of chapters told from the point of view of the same set of characters. Thus, readers get to know and follow a handful of characters through the shifting tides of the story, including a hapless Roman soldier, an old woman whose early servitude taught her routes up and down the length of Italy, a Greek medic, a Roman general’s slave scribe, several of Spartacus’s most trusted lieutenants, and Spartacus himself.

Spartacus is a born leader, able to think both strategically and tactically, helped also by a priestess’s visions of triumph. The gladiators’ escape, early sorties, and first two engagements with the Roman armies sent against them are thrilling in their planning and execution. Spartacus takes the long view of his eventual objectives, though not everyone in his expansive following agrees with his plans.

Halfway through the book, the tide starts to turn against The Risen, slowly at first with small setbacks, but soon in wave after wave of bad luck, betrayal, and strategic miscalculations. As one character says, Spartacus was so strong he could only be brought down through betrayal, but it may be that Spartacus simply didn’t understand that, however much Rome was hated, an army of slaves could never command the respect necessary to gain true allies.

Not All BastardsNOT ALL BASTARDS ARE FROM VIENNA, Andrea Molesini, translated by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh, Grove Press

This restrained, beautifully written debut novel looks at war from the microcosm of a single location, that of a villa in the small Italian town of Refrontolo, just north of Venice, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Caporetto. It is November 1917, and the German/Austro-Hungarian armies are pressing their advantage to drive deeper into Italy. The novel opens as a contingent of Germans commandeers the villa of the Spada family for the officers’ use, and billets the infantry in the almost-deserted village. The adult narrator, Paolo Spada, looks back on the story through the eyes of his 17-year-old self, describing events with just the right mix of understanding, naiveté, and desire for grown-up adventure that a boy on the cusp of manhood would have in that situation.

Engaging characters populate the Spada household: strong-willed grandmother Nancy; contrary, charming grandfather Gugliemo; fiercely loyal housekeeper Teresa; beautiful, eccentric neighbor Giulia; intelligence-officer-cum-house-steward Renato; and, at the center, Paolo’s intelligent, resourceful aunt Donna Maria. Paolo observes the chastely tender relationship that grows between Maria and the Viennese major in charge of the billeted army, Baron Von Feilitzsch. These two aristocrats with similar educations and cultural influences share far more in common than does the monied family with the local peasants, but war both divides and unites along national boundaries. Maria and the Baron are the last products of old empires that will not survive the war. As many in the family are drawn into helping Renato’s insurgency missions, those boundaries are fully drawn.

Molesini’s language is simple and lovely, and his story draws the reader in close to the family. He notes that this novel was inspired by Maria Spada’s privately published Diary of Invasion; he has written a book that is equal to such a remarkable woman.

More from the Historical Novels Review Spring 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

HystopiaHYSTOPIA, David Means, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

The conceit of Hystopia, author David Means’ first novel, is that the novel it contains was written by a Vietnam vet, Eugene Allen, who leaves the completed manuscript and a set of notes behind when he commits suicide. Eugene’s novel is bracketed by a series of editor’s notes and snippets of interviews with Eugene’s friends, family, and acquaintances, through which we come to understand how much of his novel is autobiographical.

Means makes it clear from the start that all of this is alternative history. The book opens with an editor’s note mentioning, “Details of the seventh assassination attempt made on John F. Kennedy, now known as the Genuine Assassination, have been changed slightly in Allen’s narrative . . . ”

As the novel inside the novel describes, Kennedy’s administration has developed a therapy called enfolding, which attempts to heal returning veterans’ psychological trauma. Vets take a drug called Tripizoid, re-enact the scene of their trauma, and thereby cancel the event out of their conscious and unconscious memory. It doesn’t work on everyone, and a failed treatment deepens the damage.

The story alternates primarily between Singleton and Wendy, agents of Kennedy’s Psych Corps, and a variety of characters roaming the wastelands of Michigan, burned to the waterline by rampaging gangs and failed enfoldees. The worst of these is psychopathic Rake, who has kidnapped a young woman and is holding her at his buddy’s cabin. All of these characters are damaged, some irretrievably, but as the story lines eventually converge, Means allows Eugene to give his characters a measure of light at the end of their dark tunnel. For us, Means has woven an ingenious, compelling, brutal story of the ravages that war exacts on the society that wages it.

EdenWEST OF EDEN: AN AMERICAN PLACE, Jean Stein, Random House

This is the book for anyone who needs to be reminded that money does not buy happiness. In fact, the lesson taught by West of Eden is that having lots of money simply opens the door to buying unhappiness on a truly breathtaking scale.

Author Jean Stein is the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of MCA and one of the most powerful men in entertainment for many years. Each of five sections focuses on a selected family, such as that of Jack Warner of Warner Bros. fame; Jennifer Jones, among whose husbands was hugely powerful producer David O. Selznick; and Stein’s own. It’s fitting that sections are subtitled with the addresses of the houses these people lived in, since each is a character in its own right.

The book is made up of interwoven interviews with friends, family, business associates, and other witnesses to the goings-on of the rich, powerful, and famous. It’s compulsively readable but often disturbing, in particular as readers understand the frequency with which stunningly self-absorbed parents utterly ignore or discard their children. Rarely are stepfamilies blended; the old family is merely left behind somewhere to make room for the new one. It’s a sobering portrait.

AgincourtTHE BATTLE OF AGINCOURT, Edited by Anne Curry and Malcolm Mercer, Yale University Press

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .” One of Shakespeare’s most rousing speeches is declaimed by King Henry V in advance of the Battle of Agincourt, which took place October 25, 1415, and in which the far-outnumbered English army emerged victorious against the French. That battle is the subject of this gorgeous, richly illustrated, and scholarly coffee table book, a project developed under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Armouries to commemorate the 600-year anniversary of a battle that its predecessor, the Office of Armoury, actually outfitted. The book features a collection of essays that discuss various aspects of Agincourt, from the English and French commanders, to the weapons and armaments, to the precipitating factors and aftermath, to Shakespeare’s Henry V, and even to the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of the play, which was filmed in Technicolor and released at the height of World War II as a huge boost to national morale. Though Agincourt was not a decisive battle in the Hundred Years War, the editors credit Shakespeare’s play with making the battle a cultural touchstone in the English historical narrative.

Historical Novels Review Winter 2016 Issue

The following reviews originally appeared in the February 2016 print and online edition of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 9.24.03 PMTHE LOST TIME ACCIDENTS, John Wray, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Taken together, John Wray’s first three novels clearly demonstrate his facility in representing a broad, eclectic range of subjects, time periods, and characters; thus, this novel should come as no real surprise, but it does. Defying easy categorization, the book weaves elements of science, science fiction, history, pop culture, and religion to produce a funny, mordant, thoughtful, and thought-provoking exegesis on the nature of time.

Waldemar Tolliver is both the hapless victim and natural product of his notorious family’s history. When his great-grandfather, pickle baron and amateur physicist Ottokar Toula, dies just hours after making the stunning but ill-documented discovery that it’s possible to move freely within the dimension of time, Ottokar’s descendants are trapped in lifetimes of attempting to unlock those lost secrets. Waldy’s family, certain it has the inside track on the right answer, dismisses Einstein as “The Patent Clerk.” “The belief that every physicist since Newton has been a fraud or a sucker (or both) is our family dogma, passed from generation to generation like a vendetta or an allergy to nuts.”

The details unwrap themselves slowly as we read over Waldy’s shoulder while he pens his family’s sordid history for the faithless woman he loves, Mrs. Haven. He writes from inside the depths of his late aunts’ huge, stuffed-to-the-rafters New York apartment where, incidentally, he finds himself entirely outside the stream of time. How he came to be there, how he is named after his great-uncle the war criminal, how his father’s bad science fiction writing is responsible for the founding of a cult (Wray doesn’t bother to hide that he’s describing Scientology), and how his thoroughly eccentric aunts may have finally solved the puzzle are all eventually revealed in this story that, like a black hole, winds ever tighter around its core.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 9.23.21 PMTHE VATICAN PRINCESS: A NOVEL OF LUCREZIA BORGIA, C.W. Gortner, Ballantine

Pity Lucrezia Borgia and the legacy of historical gossip permanently attached to her. Simply saying the name conjures up titillating visions of wealth, power, evil, and lots of illicit sex. C.W. Gortner, who specializes in Renaissance fiction featuring strong female protagonists, uses his latest novel to cut through the innuendo and perhaps shine a more historically accurate light onto this notorious woman, who seems to have simply had the misfortune of being born into the wrong family.

Gortner has Lucrezia narrate her own story, and he presents her as a credible witness. She and her siblings are the children of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and one of his many long-term mistresses; the barest of charades is used to maintain the required appearances. The story opens when Lucrezia is twelve and the conclave of cardinals is set to elect a new pope. We immediately plunge into the stunning complexities, intrigues, and cold-blooded cynicism of life among the Vatican elite. Rodrigo’s machinations win him the papacy, a thoroughly political office that demands constant power-brokering and frequent wars to protect it. Lucrezia is used as any Renaissance princess would be, as a useful tool for cementing allegiances, and she has precious little real influence. However much Rodrigo dotes upon her, or her brother Cesare claims to love her, the entire Borgia clan uses her horrifically and eventually causes her nothing but misery.

The author has invested his novel with impressive historical detail that is woven neatly into the threads of the story, and his afterword and references offer excellent insight and final wrap-up. Though he strikes a few false notes – Lucrezia’s relinquished child seems to play almost no part in her emotional make-up – Gortner gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was treated badly both in life and by the historical record.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 9.21.55 PMTHE MAN WHO SPOKE SNAKISH, Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Mosley, Black Cat

In The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Estonian writer Andrus Kivirähk weaves a melancholy, often brutal, tale of the last gasp of an ancient folkloric culture. He describes a people who live entirely in the forest, keep wolves to ride (like horses) and milk (like cows), command wild deer and goats to come to slaughter, and speak the language of their friends the snakes. It is this ability that offers the people dominion over the wolves, deer, and goats, and the forest in general.

Even as the novel opens, though, we find a culture in steep decline. People are leaving the forest in droves, drawn into the tantalizingly modern life of the village with its foreign invaders’ concepts that appear to offer a better life. The title character, Leemet, lives with his widowed mother and sister in their hut in the forest surrounded by an ever-shrinking community. Leemet’s uncle Vootele is the last fluent human speaker of Snakish, and he insists that Leemet learn it equally well. Vootele teaches Leemet about their ancient protector, the Frog of the North, and about Leemet’s grandfather, the last man to have poisonous fangs, which he used to tear into the “iron men” before those invading knights were able to capture him, chop off his legs, and throw him into the sea.

Though there is humor, particularly in some of the early descriptions and observations, the novel becomes ever darker as Leemet finds himself increasingly isolated. Kivirähk can perhaps be forgiven for drawing caricatures on both sides of the culture clash that traps Leemet, since every folktale features archetypes rather than well-drawn characters. Nonetheless, Kivirähk’s tale is poignant in its depiction of the loss of community, of the utter loneliness of living without the people who most understand who we really are.

Historical Novels Review Fall Issue

The following reviews first appeared in the November 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth, Graywolf

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 5.49.09 PMPaul Kingsnorth’s challenging, heavily researched first novel The Wake is written in what he describes as a “shadow tongue” of Old English, or, as it would be in the language of the book, “sceado tunge.” He includes a brief glossary for the words that have no relation to modern English (such as “fugol” for “bird”), but generally the reader must learn to translate as the story unfolds. The raw human tragedy that the damaged and damaging narrator Buccmaster of Holland relates makes the searing story clear enough.

Buccmaster is an important man in his world, as he often reminds those around him: a free tenant farmer with land, a large house, people who work for him, and a seat in local government. All that changes when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, invades, and Normans sweep through the countryside in an orgy of pillaging, burning, raping, and killing. Buccmaster loses everything, including his family–everything, that is, except for a misplaced sense of his own superiority as a leader and as the one chosen to cast out the foreign invaders. For him, this includes Christianity, which he sees as a false, foreign religion that rules by fear of damnation. Buccmaster looks instead to the old gods of England, as his grandfather taught him. They speak to him, goading him to act, telling him to trust no one, and he listens too well.

If, as it has been said, the past is a foreign country, it’s worth learning the language to make this visit.

CROOKED, Austin Grossman, Mulholland

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 7.48.01 PMTake Richard Nixon’s well-documented political biography and much-analyzed personal foibles, throw in some good old-fashioned Cold War spy craft, and finish it off with an odd mix of National Treasure and Men in Black, and that approximates what Austin Grossman serves up in his latest novel. His inspiration, apparently, is that no one has ever definitively explained the motive behind the Watergate break-in. That Grossman is a video game designer (Tomb Raider, Deus Ex) hints at what to expect.

Decidedly, this is Dick Nixon as you’ve never seen him before, along with a whole cast of historical figures playing wildly against type. In particular, there’s Ike Eisenhower as Wizard-in-Chief, an other-worldly Henry Kissinger—“no one liked to be within two feet of him”, and with good reason—and not-so-dutiful wife Pat, whom Nixon, as first-person narrator, describes as even more misunderstood than he. Though this is wildly alternative history, Grossman effectively captures the zeitgeist of the late ´40s and early ´50s as the Cold War blossomed and the atomic age and its doomsday implications hung like a mushroom cloud over everything. The premise here is that the world is filled with demonic beasts and various extraterrestrials, that the New World population was allowed to survive based on black magic and shadowy deals with this other populace, that every U.S. president has had more or less knowledge and mastery of these forces, and finally that part of the Cold War arms race was the competition to control and deploy these unpleasant forces. While Grossman offers glimpses of these sinister projects, he never gives us the big reveal; he only alludes to the showdown Nixon orchestrates to allow mankind to continue, paid for with his own downfall. Nixon tells us that he’s seen the devil, but we never do. What a letdown.

THE BIG GREEN TENT, Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon), Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 7.58.44 PMLudmila Ulitskaya’s 500-plus page, classically Russian novel The Big Green Tent offers a tale of three schoolboys drawn together by their shared status as outcasts—intelligent, artistic, regular targets of the schoolyard bullies—who become lifelong friends. This is a richly layered story that manages to be both intimate and grand in scale simultaneously.

When Ulitskaya appears to complete the entire life story of two of the main characters within the first 150 pages of the book, a reader is tempted to wonder where else she is going to take the story. The answer is that she circles back again and again to explore different elements of her characters’ lives, to expose more details and to follow various trajectories of actions and events that in turn spawn other trajectories. Each chapter or section, as tangential to the central action as it may appear to be, eventually ties back to the main characters and reveals yet another facet of the expanding story. Permeating every aspect of the novel—in both mundane details and in seismic, life-changing events—is the calculated, heartless, and systematic brutality of the Soviet regime, which retains its character well beyond the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, an era the characters misread as offering a respite from the cultural chokehold of Stalin. Each of the main characters is tripped up in one way or another by the system, and must choose a path forward. Sharing a love of Russia and a hatred of the regime, some would do anything to leave and others would do anything to stay—anything, of course, but accept the mindless, unquestioning obedience the Soviet system demands of them.