Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Out of step with the century: a review of Sanctuary, a moody YA ghost story

In this moody historical ghost story, nearly everything – the house at its center, the characters, their relationships – feels slightly out of step with the real world. McKissack has successfully infused her debut novel with the Gothic-ness the genre requires.

Cecilia Cross, an introspective 17-year-old, tells us her former classmates found her odd: “Maybe the sea, something to do with being from an island… you seem like you’re from someplace else.” After her boarding school tuition is abruptly cut off following her Aunt Laura’s death, Cecilia returns home to Sanctuary, an immense 18th-century mansion on a windswept Maine isle. Ten years earlier, following the ’29 crash, Cecilia’s father committed suicide; five years afterward, her older sister and grandmother died in a fire, and her mother was placed in an asylum. Numerous misfortunes are piled upon our heroine’s shoulders.

Cecilia finds herself dependent on her unstable, cruel uncle, who wants her gone. Eli Bauer, a young professor on site to study Sanctuary’s extensive book collection, seems her only hope, and they spend time exploring the island’s graveyards and wild regions, slowly falling in love in the process. There are many unsettling presences, though, ones that Cecilia can sense. They draw her into a whirlwind of mystery and tragedy involving the Acadians’ expulsion from Nova Scotia two centuries earlier.

This sorrowful episode, and Cecilia’s ties to it, is fascinating to explore, but it takes a long time for the plot strands to come together. The larger issue, though? Cecilia’s nearly an adult, in 1939, with no apparent plans for her future nor means to support herself. She wanders around a lot while others handle the daily chores. And the family supposedly isn’t wealthy anymore; one wonders how a mansion of Sanctuary’s size stays running. Recommended for YA and adult readers wanting to indulge in Gothic atmosphere without worrying about practicalities.


Jennifer McKissack's Sanctuary was published by Scholastic last September in hardcover ($17.99, 306pp), and this review also appears in the Historical Novels Review's February reviews.  The novel shows promise, although I had been hoping for more complete world-building.  Judging by other reviews I've read, my reaction is unusual.  This is a Gothic tale that, for me, would have worked better if set in an earlier time when finding a worthy husband was a young woman's single-minded goal. But, set in 1939, the story didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped.  Like Da Vinci's Tiger, this is also a YA historical novel, and the pair make for a study in contrasts.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The voice of a Renaissance heroine: a review of L. M. Elliott's Da Vinci's Tiger

When there are gems like this to be found, it’s no wonder adults get in the habit of raiding bookstores’ YA sections. This lyrical character-driven novel is narrated by 17-year-old Ginevra de’ Benci Niccolini, daughter of a banking family in 15th-century Florence, who was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early subjects. His painting of her is groundbreaking for its forward-facing gaze and backdrop of the natural world. Ginevra was also a poet, although only one line remains of her writing (the book’s title derives from this).*

Ginevra is the wife of a kind but distant wool merchant twice her age. Her marriage was arranged by her uncle and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and despite her convent education and spirited wit, she’s used to having little say in her life. However, when Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo decides to make her his Platonic lover and commissions her portrait, it pushes her to consider delicate matters of the heart, especially when Bembo seems to want more than idolizing her from afar. Her sympathetic mentor, Abbess Scolastica, gives her wise advice on how she can retain her virtue and make her own voice heard.

Ginevra’s movements around the city create a richly detailed tour of Florentine history and culture, from an exciting joust at the Piazza di Santa Croce to the peace of the Le Murate convent – famous for its sisters’ gold-thread embroidery – to a fancy dinner party at the Palazzo Medici, where the strange new table fork is introduced. Elliott also brings readers into the studio with Leonardo, imagining the artistic decisions behind Ginevra’s portrait. Her research is thorough and enthusiastic, so much so that Ginevra’s story sometimes fades into the background, but anyone fascinated by the setting won’t mind. Speaking to the theme of women’s agency in restrictive times, this is a beautiful and thoughtful read for teenagers on up.


Da Vinci's Tiger by L. M. Elliott was published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in late 2015 ($17.99, hardcover, 304pp). I had been pre-approved for this title on Edelweiss and had some free time over the Christmas holidays, so I started reading it and got into the story quickly.  This review also appeared in February's Historical Novels Review

Although you'll find this novel categorized as Young Adult, it can be read and enjoyed as an adult title just as easily.  Are there other YA historical novels you can think of that feature heroines who are already married as the book opens?  That aspect was new for me, and I appreciated the author's adherence to historical accuracy in that respect, and others.

Read more about Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra (above), the only painting of his on display in the Americas, at the National Gallery of Art website.

* The one line of poetry by Ginevra de' Benci that's come down to us is:  "I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger."

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Book review: The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig

This multi-generational novel, set between 1892 and 1944, is jointly written by three people, all bestselling authors (and good friends), but the smooth writing style makes it hard to tell it’s a collaborative effort. That said, I had fun guessing who wrote what.

The three heroines are introduced one after the other. During WWII, while on duty at a private hospital on East 69th St. in Manhattan, Dr. Kate Schuyler is surprised by her attraction to a new patient, Captain Cooper Ravenel, and his possession of a miniature portrait that resembles her greatly. At the height of the Gilded Age, gentle Olive Van Alan goes into service at the elegant Pratt Mansion, concealing her identity, and planning revenge on the rich family that ruined her father. Lastly, in 1920, Lucy Young, a German baker’s spirited daughter, takes up residence at a women’s boardinghouse, hoping to uncover her mother’s connection to the place.

The house in all three stories is the same. By the time the second iteration of Kate’s narrative came around, I was hooked, wondering how each woman’s story would turn out, and curious about the origins of the portrait and Kate’s ruby necklace.

Genealogy buffs will appreciate the unfolding mystery; I found myself sketching a family tree as relationships slowly fell into place. With its themes of lost grandeur, poignant romance, and the elusiveness of the past, the plot has a grand emotional sweep. It also addresses social barriers and the challenges women face in the working world. Through the role the house plays in each era, too – a status symbol, a respectable residence, and a utilitarian building – it symbolizes the changes transforming American society. This is an absorbing standalone novel, but fans of the authors’ previous books will notice some references left just for them.

The Forgotten Room was published by NAL in January ($25.95/C$33.95, hb, 371pp).  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett - review and giveaway

Opening in Russia in 1911, Midnight in St. Petersburg features a young woman seeking refuge, a tense love triangle, the dangerous stirrings of revolution, and the subsequent destruction of ideals. Music plays a part, too. In her newest historical novel to reach an American audience, Vanora Bennett takes an understated, thought-provoking approach to what could have been a dramatically over-the-top plotline.

The heroine, Inna Feldman, is a sympathetic figure, at least to start. Alarmed by the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in Kiev, and having nowhere else to go after the distant cousins with whom she lived flee the country, Inna boards a train to St. Petersburg with stolen papers.  She plans to take refuge with Yasha Kagan, her relatives’ son, whom she’s never met.

En route, she meets up with a kind peasant who knows the capital city and guides her to her destination. It’s not difficult to guess the identity of “Father Grigori” – Rasputin has a way of inserting himself into historical novels of the period – but his is a different depiction than the usual, and his transformation over time fits the themes Bennett aims to convey.

Taken in by the boisterous Leman family of violin-makers, Yasha’s landlords and employers, Inna finds a tentative home in St. Petersburg. Attracted to Yasha despite his strong socialist leanings and hot-and-cold attitude towards her, Inna also feels drawn to Horace Wallick, an Englishman twice her age who crafts elaborate Faberge eggs and has members of the Russian nobility as customers. Some of the decisions Inna makes with regard to her two suitors won’t endear her to readers, and may discourage further reading through the novel’s long middle section, but her full character arc proves rewarding to follow in the end.

In this literary novel, expressive symbolism is found in minute details. One scene in which Yasha aims to restore Inna’s pride in her Jewish heritage through his violin, “trying to play away her fear,” is deeply moving in its insight – as is her reaction. Many aspects of life in revolutionary Russia turn out differently than its people intend.

Bennett puts her extensive knowledge of the place and period (she lived in Russia for seven years and is fluent in the language) to excellent use in her tale of ordinary people altered by treacherous, uncontrollable circumstances and discovering what matters most to them.

Midnight in St. Petersburg is published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press this month ($25.99, hb, 371pp, plus an informative author's afterword explaining Bennett's connection to the material; Horace Wallick was a relative). Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.

Update, 2/6/16: The giveaway has closed; it was one of my more popular contests! Congratulations to Brett C., and thanks to all who entered.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Peter Golden's Wherever There Is Light, a panoramic tale of romance and social change

Tinted with melancholy and yearning, Golden’s decades-spanning literary romance follows two individuals whose enduring love is tested by their personal histories and their tumultuous times.

Kendall Wakefield and Julian Rose are an unlikely couple, especially in South Florida of 1938: she’s the artistically minded daughter of an African-American college’s female president, while he’s a German-Jewish man who became wealthy via bootlegging during Prohibition.

While Julian’s personality can be disconcerting—his enemies soon discover his expertise in Mafia-style intimidation, and his thoughts about his lover occasionally feel clich├ęd—Kendall is captivating, and her resolve to push past racial discrimination and succeed on her own terms feels piercingly real. Both have uneasy relationships with their family members, who are all vivid characters.

Each setting is re-created with a socially conscious eye, from the horrifying racism of the Jim Crow South to the Greenwich Village art scene to postwar Paris, whose residents’ emotional suffering hasn’t dimmed their appreciation for beauty. Julian and Kendall are independent, courageous people who grow over time, and their story feels undeniably romantic.

Wherever There Is Light was published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in November (hb, $25.00, 368pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's October issue. Read more in an interview with the author for the Gaston (NC) Gazette, where he discusses his inspiration for his work and the little-known story of how historically Black colleges gave refuge to Jewish academics fleeing Europe (such as Julian's father in the novel) in the 1930s.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book review: Stephen Harrigan's A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Harrigan’s newest epic adds to his reputation as a stellar historical novelist. Set mostly in Illinois in the 1830s and '40s, it takes a powerfully astute look at the public and private sides of the young Abraham Lincoln and the agonizing struggles he endured trying to reconcile the two.

Paralleling his character development is that of Springfield, the prospective state capital, where hogs roam the dirty streets while speculators and political men muscle in, all seeking to “live a life of consequence.” Among the most prominent is Lincoln, a lanky and popular member of the General Assembly with a talent for off-color jokes and capturing a crowd’s attention.

The events are seen from the perspective of fictional poet Cage Weatherby, who becomes his close friend. This works well, for Cage also has a riveting personal story and can hold his own in scenes with Lincoln.

Full of wild ambition, yet awkward around women and prone to depression, Lincoln takes his time working out his approaches to the polarizing issue of slavery and to the ebullient and refined Mary Todd. In addition to fine character depictions, readers get a firsthand glimpse of early Illinois politics, a physically dangerous and occasionally bloody affair, while experiencing a tale about ethics, morality, and the nature of courage that feels as vital as today’s news.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln will be published in early February by Knopf ($27.95, hb, 415pp).  This is the version of a starred review that I'd submitted to Booklist for their January issue.  I was so pleased to be asked to review this book; I had been seriously impressed by the author's earlier Remember Ben Clayton, plus this new novel takes place close to home.  And for those familiar with the current state of Illinois politics, you'll want to read what it was like in Lincoln's time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Historical fiction award winners: ALA Reading List, Langum Prize, Scott O'Dell Award

'Tis the season for book prize announcements.  The American Library Association's Midwinter conference wraps up today, and many book award winners were made public at the event.  In addition, two additional prizes for historical novels were announced in recent days.

First comes the ALA's Reading List award, which covers eight genre fiction categories, including Historical Fiction.  The 2016 winner is Lissa Evans' Crooked Heart, published by Harper.

From the press release:  "Raised by his eccentric ex-suffragette godmother to be a free-thinker, young Noel is thrown into chaos when the London Blitz forces him into the home of a scam artist loyal only to her layabout son. Thrust together, the two oddballs are forced to find a way through the wartime landscape."

The short list is as follows:

Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Katrice Barnett. Grove Press.
The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press.
Paradise Sky, Joe R. Lansdale. Mulholland Books.
The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows. The Dial Press.
Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I didn't see any historical novels among the winners in the other seven categories (although some appeared in the shortlists, like Kate Alcott's A Touch of Stardust, set in 1930s Hollywood, in the Women's Fiction category).  For more, see the ALA press release.

Also announced at ALA:
The Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature went to:  The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard (the Warsaw Ghetto, through a child's eyes)
The Book of Aron was also named to the 2016 Notable Books List.

The winner of the 2015 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction was announced as Faith Sullivan's Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, from Milkweed Editions.

From the press release:  "Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse is an exquisite gem. Nell Stillman, the protagonist, is an Everywoman. She lived almost her entire adult life in an apartment above a meat market in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota ... The time of Nell's adult life, c. 1900-1961, saw many historical changes of significant character, for example, numerous improvements in appliances and other implements of women's work, W.W.I, women's suffrage, electrification, prohibition, W.W.II, and so on. The book does not neglect these historical events but presents then from the satisfying perspective of what they meant to this little town, and what they meant to Nell Stillman. Highly recommend."

Receiving an Honorary Mention for 2015 is Meg Waite Clayton's The Race for Paris, about American female war correspondents on the front lines overseas during WWII.

Finally, the winner of the 2016 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which covers titles for children and young adults set in the Americas, is Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, about a 14-year-old Catholic girl sent to work for a Jewish family in Baltimore in 1911.  More at the Horn Book site.