Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book review: The Fortune Hunter, by Daisy Goodwin

Goodwin’s second novel is a luxurious indulgence for romantically inclined readers. In 1875, Charlotte Baird, an intellectually minded heiress, becomes an unexpected third wheel when the man she hopes to marry, Captain Bay Middleton, is pressed into service for Empress Elizabeth of Austria’s visit to England.

A reputed ladies’ man, Bay genuinely likes Charlotte for herself and encourages her unfashionable interest in photography. However, as Bay guides the willful, lonely, and deeply private empress on her fox-hunting pursuits on the grounds of vast country estates, they bond over their talent and passion for horsemanship and develop an intense mutual attraction.

Mingling historical fact with imaginative fiction, Goodwin writes with effortless grace, and her dialogue’s subtle wit is delightful. Each of her three protagonists commands attention and sympathy, which heightens the story’s poignancy. Charlotte’s levelheaded personality remains unaffected by her wealth or her relatives’ dependence on it, and Bay is movingly torn between duty and his sense of self-worth. Finally, despite her outlandish regimen for maintaining her complexion and ankle-length chestnut tresses, Elizabeth is never less than beguiling.

The Fortune Hunter was published yesterday in hardcover by St. Martin's Press ($26.99, 480pp).  For more information, see the author's website or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  This review first appeared in Booklist's May 15th issue. 

Some additional thoughts and comments:

- Readers may notice that some name spellings have been anglicized, such as that of Empress Elisabeth (with an "s"), popularly known as "Sisi," and her son, Rudolf.
- The author's note at the end indicates many of the instances where the story deviates from history; the timeline has been condensed, for instance, to maximize its dramatic potential.
- Bay Middleton is, yes, a distant relation of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Monday, July 28, 2014

An interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical/fantasy novel Alias Hook

I'd like to welcome Lisa Jensen back to Reading the Past for a conversation about her new release, Alias Hook. This beautifully imagined tale inverts the story of Peter Pan by depicting the eternally young Peter as the pompous child ruler of Neverland and his nemesis, Captain Hook, as an intelligent Georgian-era pirate captain who's weary of battling Peter and his tribe of Lost Boys for centuries on end.  When an Englishwoman named Stella Parrish dreams her way into Neverland, to the astonishment of everyone there, it serves as the impetus for Hook to re-evaluate his circumstances, try to escape from the curse laid upon him, and, perhaps, fall in love.

Both action-filled and thought-provoking, and alternating between historically grounded and magical settings, the genre-bending Alias Hook is a delightful mix of contrasts.  Since I'd never been a big admirer of the traditional  story Peter Pan seemed too selfish to be likeable I found myself preferring Lisa's version.  Hook's journey to freedom and self-understanding is also deeply romantic, and, unlike the original, it's definitely for grown-ups!

Do you remember your first encounter with the story of Peter Pan as a child, and what you thought about it?

I probably saw the old Mary Martin version of the stage play on TV before I was old enough to go see the Disney movie in a theater, but I don't actually remember. But I DO know that I always loved Captain Hook—he was funny and silly and sneaky, and the story perked up whenever he was around!

How did you choose the timeframes, the early 1700s for the beginning of the Captain’s story, and 1950 for Stella’s?

J. M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan (as well as Peter and Wendy, the novelization of his famous play) tells us that Hook sailed with Blackbeard, so that roots him in a very specific historical era. Blackbeard was killed in 1718, and roughly the 1690s—1720s are considered the "Golden Age of Piracy," so there was a lot of historical material available. (Although in my book, James Hook laughs at the idea that he would ever actually sail with Blackbeard, who was a lunatic!)

For Stella's timeframe, I wanted her to have been though something cataclysmic, like a world war, to make her long for what she imagines will be a world of perfect childhood innocence in the Neverland. I wanted her modern enough to be completely different from any woman Hook has ever known before. (She wears trousers, drinks and swears.) But I didn't want her to be too modern, didn't want to burden her with technology like cell phones and instant access to information. She comes from an era where life can still be slow and mysterious and private.

In Alias Hook, Peter Pan is a dangerously spoiled and power-hungry little brat, but there’s a little more to him than that. How did you develop his character?

Barrie tells us who's who in the Neverland, but not why or how, so I had to make up the "rules" that govern the place on my own. As soon as James Hook took up residence in my head and started telling me his side of the story, I knew that Pan would have to be the antagonist. Not the villain, he's just heartless and cruel, in the manner of children who don't understand the consequences of what they do. But it can't all be non-stop fun, not even for Pan, the eternal child. He's the necessary figurehead in the Neverland, which provides a safe place for the world's children to dream, but he's paid a price for his position. He's suffered losses over time that he doesn't quite remember, but there's a darkness in his psyche that makes him extra aggressive toward his enemies, the grown-ups—especially Hook.

How has your longtime experience as a professional film critic influenced your approach to writing fiction?

It may be that I envision things in more cinematic terms, like the placement of figures in a scene, or the composition of elements in the landscape. Readers have told me the book is very visual, that they "see" it in their mind's eye, so that's probably the influence of the movies! Also, analyzing hundreds of movies in the reviewing process has hopefully taught me how to structure a successful narrative.

George R. R. Martin has said: “I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth.” Do you agree? Did you find similarities in the world-building process you used to create both your historical England and the imaginative Neverland?

Oh, boy, I have something in common with George R. R. Martin! I feel like fantasy and historical fiction have a lot in common. In both cases, the writer is taking readers some place where they have never been—and where they can never possibly go. Some place where the customs, clothing, and "rules" are completely alien. And it's the author's job to make this alien landscape come to life for readers, either by drenching it in the minutiae of vivid historical detail, or else making it all up! In one way, making up fantasy worlds might be easier, but in both cases, the story and characters must be firmly rooted in recognizable human emotion. That's what creates drama.

Back in the guest post you wrote for my site two years ago, you’d written that “pirate stories have always been my favorite guilty pleasure.” This is your second novel to feature pirates and their daring adventures at sea. Where did your interest in pirates and pirate stories come from?

All those hours watching old Errol Flynn movies on TV with my mom in my formative years! From a writer's perspective, I think pirates are a metaphor for freedom, the freedom of the open sea, far away from the social order on land, with its rules and regulations and strict moral code. Then, of course, there's the wardrobe—who doesn't want to wear those boots!

Many of the settings within Neverland are beautifully enchanting. The scene of the fairy dell during their revels, with its shimmering palace, is probably my favorite. If you were offered the chance to visit one of the regions of your Neverland (assuming you were guaranteed safety!), which one would it be?

I'm kind of partial to the cavernous grotto beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, with its phosphorescent, gemstone-colored rock formations. In photos of deepwater fish and plant life that exists far away from the sun, the colors are extraordinary! But the shimmering white palace of the Fairy Queen is pretty amazing too, with its hall of giant silver mirrors reflecting not necessarily what's real, but the inner fears of anyone looking in. But I'd need a trail of breadcrumbs, or something, to find my way out again!

I just reread your short story “Proserpina’s Curse,” from the sadly defunct Paradox Magazine, which recounts Hook’s backstory and the very beginning of his adventures. It works very well as a standalone story, but how much of the novel had been written at the time it was published?

I think I had completed an early draft by the time that story was published in Paradox, but, of course, it was nothing like what is now the finished novel of Alias Hook. I'm the kind of writer who has to slog through many, many drafts before I finally figure out what my story is about! But I have to say, getting such a positive response from Chris Cevasco at Paradox was a real turning point for me. It encouraged me to tear back into the manuscript and get serious about a full-length novel.

Since you’re a known movie enthusiast, I have to ask – who would be your ideal casting choices for a film of Alias Hook?

Well, I didn't have anybody in mind while I was writing the book; I always saw James Hook as his own person. But if I had to pick a movie star to play him, how about Hugh Jackman? He's certainly got the musicality for it, because, in my book, James Hook is very musical. That's why losing his hand is so traumatic. I like Rachel Weisz for my heroine, Stella. She's serious, spirited and mature, but she also has a goofy side (if you ever saw her in The Brothers Bloom). As for Pan...well, considering how long it takes to get a movie made, that actor probably hasn't been born yet!

~

Alias Hook was published in hardcover in July by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press ($24.99/C$28.99, 368pp).  The UK publisher is Snowbooks (pb, £7.99).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book review: Angels Make Their Hope Here, by Breena Clarke

Although Breena Clarke has previously written two highly regarded historical novels – including an Oprah pick, River, Cross My Heart – her latest was my first experience with her work. Based on the author's research into legends of the Ramapo Mountains of northeastern New Jersey, Angels Make Their Hope Here hones in on a secluded pocket of civilization called Russell's Knob, an imagined setting whose racially mixed residents – blacks, whites, Indians, and their "jumble children" descendants – live in harmony and fiercely defend one another against outsiders.

The perspective shifts among a medium-sized cast of characters, much like a camera might pan across a scene. Although the effect could be jumpy and awkward in a less skilled writer's hands, the transitions feel remarkably seamless here.

In 1849, Dossie is a young dark-skinned girl who was sent north from Maryland along the Underground Railroad by caring relatives. Unfortunately, she had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous ring of people who worked her like a slave. That is, until a man named Duncan Smoot, who was to be her next conductor along the line, burns her captors' house down and secrets her away to Russell's Knob in the mountain highlands. One poignant image of her first night in her new home sees Dossie stretched out “in a comfortable curl on the well-worn floor,” refusing to acknowledge the possibility that she has a bed of her own.

Over the next decade or so, as she adjusts to her new circumstances, she cares for Duncan's chickens and keeps his house tidy while becoming part of his extended family: his sister Hattie, her German-born husband, their son, his handsome cousin, and the local spirit woman. Taught to read and write, Dossie grows into young adulthood hoping Duncan, whom she idolizes, will come to see her as a woman worthy of his attention.

In this era of racial strife and intolerance, however, whites and white-only locales pose a grave danger to the safety of Russell’s Knob. As the plot moves forward and occasionally back in time, Clarke reveals several jaw-dropping back stories for Smoot family members. And when the realities of being a black woman in a white-centered world hit Dossie in a very personal way, she's forced out of Russell's Knob and into New York's notorious Five Points district to save herself and her loved ones.

Rather than drawing readers carefully into her story at the beginning, Clarke drops them headlong into her characters’ thoughts and actions. I found it hard to situate myself at first, entranced by the rich setting and folksy dialect but unsure of exactly what was happening and what everyone's role was. Everything coalesced several chapters in, though, and I came to appreciate her nuanced characters. Each of them has faults, sometimes major ones, but also many redeeming qualities.

Dossie is an impressionable and sensual young woman who doesn't understand her power initially, or the effect her beauty has on other people. Her circumstances force her into emotional maturity by the end, and as a coming-of-age tale, the novel is effective and satisfying. More than that, though, Angels Make Their Hope Here is an empowering story about community, self-realization, and freedom of choice, something every person deserves.

The novel was published by Little, Brown on July 8th in hardcover ($26.00/C$29.00, 275pp).  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book review and giveaway: Kamila Shamsie's A God in Every Stone

Themes of imperialism, gender restrictions, and loyalty to country and self reverberate through Shamsie’s atmospheric novel, set amid international conflicts of the early twentieth century but with strong echoes of the distant past.

At its center are two people setting aside their old lives and beginning anew. Vivian Rose Spencer—a young Londoner equally entranced by archaeology and her older mentor, Tahsin Bey—returns to England from a Turkish dig after war breaks out in 1914. Hoping to find Tahsin again, she follows a clue in his last letter and travels to British-ruled Peshawar. In a separate tale, Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier injured fighting for Britain, heads home.

Their paths intersect briefly but reunite in 1930, when violence erupts on Peshawar’s streets and they search desperately for a gifted young man important to them both. Interwoven throughout is a story of empire and betrayal from ancient Persia. Emphasizing ideas and setting over plot, the narrative has an epic sensibility and many moments of expressive brilliance, especially when describing the underlying presence of history.

This review first appeared in Booklist's July issue.  A God in Every Stone is published by Atavist Books in August in trade pb ($20) and e-book ($9.99).  The UK publisher is Bloomsbury.  If you're curious to learn more about the novel and the history behind its many settings, you can explore its dedicated website, which I think is gorgeous.

In addition, thanks to the book's publicist, I have a giveaway open for US readers.  If you'd like to win a copy of this new literary novel that follows the growth and fall of empires and takes a unique slant on the events of WWI, please fill out the following form.  Deadline Friday, August 1st.  I'll announce the winner here on this page shortly afterward.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Book review: Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen

Rasmussen has been steadily crafting a unique brand of midwestern literature that combines offbeat characters and timeless rhythms reminiscent of folk tales with touching story lines about the pain and hard-won joys of real life. As with her debut, The Bird Sisters (2011), in her new book, she shows her strong affection for the picturesque rural settings of yesteryear.

In 1938, Eveline Sturm joins her German-born husband, Emil, in the northern Minnesota backwoods. Their isolated cabin is beyond rustic, and her only reading material is Emil’s taxidermy manuals, yet she decides to remain alone with their baby son, Hux, when Emil returns to Germany to care for his father. Years later, Eveline’s daughter, Naamah, the product of a traumatic rape, grows up amid cruelty in a Catholic orphanage.

After reuniting with his half sister as an adult, Hux tries to help the beautiful, damaged Naamah recapture her lost childhood. In this character-driven saga of friendship and the thorny bonds of family, Rasmussen writes with wisdom and compassion about the people and places that shape us, for better and worse.

Evergreen was published on July 15th by Knopf in hardcover ($25.95, 352pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's May 1st issue. If you haven't already read The Bird Sisters, I recommend it as well; both it and Evergreen are great choices for book clubs.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Theresa Tomlinson's The Tribute Bride, an exciting novel about a 7th-century royal woman

Acha of Deira, who lived during the early 7th century in what is now the north-east of England, received only scant mention in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, her status shown only in relation to the men around her. So has been the case with many women throughout time. Through historical fiction, writers can reanimate their stories, imagining their perspectives and giving readers a good sense of what their lives may have been like.

Theresa Tomlinson’s new The Tribute Bride is the only novel I know of that focuses on Acha, and it’s an excellent one. It stays within the recorded facts about political events and relationships while telling a drama-filled story of exile, ambition, retribution, and the lasting power of family and friendship.

After floods devastate the lands of Deira, ruining its people’s hopes for successful crops, Acha’s father King Aelle gives her to his overlord, King Athelfrid of nearby Bernicia, in place of the grain he would normally send as tribute. Called “The Trickster” even by his own men, Athelfrid is a handsome and dynamic ruler who accepts her as his secondary wife and who expects her to produce the sons his queen has been unable to. Queen Bebba, a beautiful Pictish-born princess, is less than thrilled by her presence though has no choice but to accept Acha as a sister-wife.

Although Acha has little control over her living arrangements, her marriage, or much else, she acts in accordance with her difficult role as a peace-weaver bride. Although she’s distrusted by many at first, her natural instincts toward compassion and generosity are her saving grace. Acha may be a woman in a male-dominated country, but her position grants her critical importance, and she develops friendships in places where only enmity might have existed otherwise. The novel shows how women of her time must form their own networks to use a modern term to help them survive and even influence the situations men create.

The vast, rolling countryside, with its vestiges of past Roman settlements and numerous hill-forts, is beautifully described. Tomlinson provides a rich and varied picture of Anglo-Saxon life: the sights and smells within the timbered halls, hand-fasting ceremonies and other worship rites for the strange local goddess called "Goat-headed Freya," and chilling prophecies fulfilled in blood. The back cover calls the timeframe covered by the novel “one of history’s bloodiest eras,” and for good reason. I hadn’t been familiar with all of the deadly wars and rivalries at the time (if you aren’t either, avoid Wikipedia!) and was shocked at how events played out.

The Tribute Bride is a solid, exciting retelling of a period crucial to Britain’s formation and of women’s hidden contributions to history. It was published by Acorn Digital Press in April in paperback (£7.99) and as an e-book ($8.99).  Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Gaps fiction can fill: An essay by Jack Marshall Maness

Today I'm welcoming novelist and fellow academic librarian Jack Marshall Maness, who's here with an evocative post about family history, the personal relationships we can have with a particular place, and his process of uncovering Kansas' dark, violent, and politically fraught past.  I hope you'll enjoy reading his essay as much as I did.

~


Gaps Fiction Can Fill
Jack Marshall Maness

I am a Denverite. Apart from two relatively short stints away from my hometown, I have lived here all my life and have no plans to leave. It may seem curious, then, as a native and loyal Coloradoan—a state with its own rich history—that I have chosen in Song of the Jayhawk to write about a small river town tucked away in the far northeast corner of Kansas. Much less about a relatively obscure era of American history, the 1850s, which perch on the threshold of a decade that has enjoyed far more fictional and historical treatment.

I write about Kansas for many reasons. For starters, it is unspeakably beautiful. The rolling hills, woodlands, and ecosystems flush with wildlife that exist in eastern Kansas—between the hundredth meridian and the Missouri River—are rich and complex. One photograph of the sunrise over the river from my grandparents’ front yard, taken by my uncle last autumn, attests to the beauty of this part of the state.

View of the Missouri River from my grandparents’ house, looking southeast.
Photo by Jim Mullins, used with permission.

If its beauty is one reason I write about Kansas, the primary reason are its people. This is really where Song of the Jayhawk was born. When I was young my brother and I would accompany our mother every summer across what was once known as the “Great American Desert”—western Kansas—to her hometown of Atchison (bickering, with no air-conditioning, the whole way). We’d spend several weeks with our cousins, exploring the bluffs and tributaries of the Missouri. We’d then drive down to the southeast town of Coffeyville, where my dad would join us and we’d spend time with his family. We’d explore yet another river system, the Verdigris, and catch frogs with yet another cousin. Summer after summer, aunt after cousin after uncle, my family and Kansas became an integral part of my soul. Kansas is a second home to me.

And yet, as we would exit the Interstate near Topeka and veer north toward Atchison, an eerie sense of disquiet would befall me. As we wound through the dark, narrow roads, lined with cacophonous woods flush with insects, I knew family myths and ghost stories awaited me; like the one about my Irish great-great-grandmother, who, it is said, could move objects with her mind and once chased the children around the room with a flying sewing machine. There would be late-night visits to the cemetery, Ouija board games, and all the while the deep, dark, silent rivers would slither by below us.

The Missouri River. Photo by Ivan Quniones, used with permission.

As we neared town, boredom became excitement, and it would be repeated as we neared Coffeyville; family stories of toothless old men in wooden chairs hand-carved with images of pirate heads; and a mysterious Cherokee ancestor who would appear and depart through a back door, leaving behind a love story. Kansas was not only a second home; over the years it became a mystery, a gap among history, legend, genealogy and family lore. One I simply had to understand.

Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri in 1850.
kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society,
Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.
I learned from my maternal grandfather, who is now 97 (and an aunt’s father, who compiled an amazing amount of genealogy), that my great-grandfather was actually born on a farm north of Atchison, and that his father had come to Kansas as early as the late 1850s from Ireland, fleeing, no doubt, famine and oppression. But Patrick and Maria Mullins unfortunately happened to settle in one of the most violent towns in one of the more tumultuous periods of American history, a town now known as “the most haunted town in Kansas.”1 (A website spurned by a paranormal cable program even loosely drew a connection to my grandfather’s grandmother, who was committed to the state mental hospital in 1886 after she “began burning everything she could get her hands on.”2).

Haunted or not, history holds a more telling and interesting story; that the town was founded on a fundamentally evil principle—to spread slavery across the continent. Congress had decided in 1854 that “squatter sovereignty” would allow settlers to decide if Kansas would be a part of the North or the South. Highly organized, vested, and subsidized emigration flooded the area, and Atchison was founded as a vehement Pro Slavery settlement. Its paper, the Squatter Sovereign, was known for venomous editorials that included sentences such as, “[d]eath to all Yankees…”3 And according to one account, its namesake, Senator David R. Atchison of Missouri, told its people “[b]y God, sir, hang every abolitionist in the territory.” 4

Pardee Butler, some 10-20 years
after the novel’s opening scene.
kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society,
Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.
And the town-folk took him at his word. Just blocks from my grandparents’ house, on August 18th, 1855, a mob decided whether or not to hang the abolitionist Reverend Pardee Butler from Ohio. Butler had chosen to speak out against slavery and refused to keep quiet. According to one account, they narrowly voted to send him down the river on a raft instead of hanging him, only to tar-and-feather him the following year and set him out naked upon the plains. One of my relatives knew Butler and was a member of his congregation in his later years, long after “Bleeding Kansas,” as it would come to be known, was over.


Now the intrigue I had always felt as a boy made sense. Kansas (and my family) weren’t haunted—they just had a dark, mysterious history. And in the gaps among the history, genealogy, and family lore I knew I now had the beginnings of a novel, even a series of novels. What was “Bleeding Kansas” like for my great-great grandparents? What was it like for the Irish and German immigrants who came not for the fight for the cause, but just to own a farm? Why was my great-great grandfather’s land one of the only unsettled sections (16) in this hand-written map the surveyor scrawled in his family recipe book?

Atchison County Surveyor Henry Kuhn’s Record (and recipe book).
kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Song of the Jayhawk fills these gaps with fiction.

As I write in the novel’s introduction, the territory’s namesake tribe, the Kanza (or Kaw) Indians, did not tell many stories to whites, but they delighted in telling them to one another. One of their favorites was about a monster, the Mialueka—creatures with large beaks who tricked people into following them to the darkest recesses of the woods, or the rivers, from which they may never return.5 I have long delighted in wondering if this story was the inspiration for the infamous Kansas “jayhawk.” The librarian and historian in me believe not, but the writer knows it is so. It simply must be.

It is the truth behind the history that will forever haunt the present, a mysterious beast that emerges from the shadowy recesses of the past, for an indelible moment, and soon disappears.

Our choice is whether or not we follow.

~

Jack Marshall Maness is the son of four generations of Kansans. He is a librarian and professor at the University of Colorado.  

Song of the Jayhawk is his first novel, and he is currently working on its sequel. Follow his progress at www.songofthejayhawk.com.

----

1 Hefner Heitz, L. (1997). Haunted Kansas. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KS.

2 Atchison Globe, July 13, 1886.

3 A wonderful overview of the Sovereign’s role in Pro Slavery propaganda is provided by Cecil-Fronsman, B. (1993). “Death to All Yankees and Traitors in Kansas: The Squatter Sovereign and the Defense of Slavery in Kansas,” Kansas History, 16(1). Kansas State Historical Society: Topeka, KS. Available at: http://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1993spring_cecil_fronsman.pdf.

4 Ingalls, S. (1916). History of Atchison County, Kansas. Standard Publishing Company: Lawrence, KS, p. 66.

5 Unrau, J. (1975). The Kaw People. Indian Tribal Series: Phoenix, AZ., p. 18