Thursday, April 23, 2015

A recipe for deception: Martine Bailey's An Appetite for Violets

Biddy Leigh, the lead character of Martine Bailey's debut novel, works as the under-cook at Mawton Hall in Cheshire in the 1770s. Adorning each chapter opening are the recipes she consults and writes in a household book she carries on her adventures.

Written by an award-winning amateur cook, An Appetite for Violets fits as “foodie fiction,” a mini-genre that compels reviewers to pull culinary metaphors out of their cupboards and serve them up for readers’ delectation. (See?  It's almost too easy.) That said, while some books of this type can feel gimmicky, this is a full-fledged historical novel that presents late 18th-century England and Europe from a servant's viewpoint.

The roles of food as nourishment, entertainment, a reflection of social class, and a way to connect to women of the past are all gently spun into the story. It’s all topped off with a sweet romance and more than a touch of Gothic creepiness. The recipes themselves ("receipts," in period parlance) are the icing on the cake.

The plot takes the form of a Georgian-era road trip, and Biddy’s voice – good-natured, fresh, and full of colorful regionalisms – makes her an appealing guide. In one amusing example, revealing her family background, she says that her "old da... fancied himself a roaring dissenter, but all I ever saw him dissent from was a hard day’s work.” The action starts when her elderly master’s young second wife, Lady Carinna, shows up at Mawton alone and unannounced, then demands an escort to her uncle’s villa in Italy. “I reckon she brings only trouble here,” says Biddy, all too correctly.

Fashionable and fine-looking but with unorthodox habits, Lady Carinna’s a bit strange, but she likes Biddy’s cooking and Biddy herself – and orders her to come along and dish up good English fare along the way. Biddy forms a friendship with Mr Loveday, the footman, whose non-western background is highlighted. Smart and literate yet lonely, he’s a former warrior from Batavia who mentally escapes from the drudgery through dreams of his previous life. The servant’s lot is a lowly and demeaning one, that’s apparent, but from sophisticated Paris to the Alps of Savoy to the gloomy and aptly named Villa Ombrosa in Tuscany, ambitious Biddy keeps her good sense and finds new opportunities to up her culinary game.

Letters travel back and forth from others as their party heads south, which leave Mr Loveday and Biddy wondering about the true reasons behind their travels. The story remains absorbing throughout, and the suspense gradually increases as the story behind the ghastly scene in the prologue comes to light. This scrumptiously satisfying work will leave readers eagerly awaiting the author’s next fictional creation, foodie or otherwise.

An Appetite for Violets was published in January by St. Martin's Press ($26.99 US/Can, hb, 391pp).  It was published in the UK by Hodder Paperbacks in January as well (£7.99).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The weight of history: Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

When Orhan Türkoğlu comes home to Kerod in Anatolia after the death of his grandfather, Kemal, the driver of his hired car praises him for returning. “So many young people leave their villages and never come back,” he says.

The statement has a double meaning the speaker didn't intend but which the reader will come to understand.  Back in 1915, countless young Armenians, along with their families, had been forced out of their villages in the Ottoman Empire and into the Syrian desert. Only vestiges of their historical presence remain today in their homeland.

Thus begins a novel that works as an entertaining story and a learning experience – for the reader and, in different ways, for its two protagonists. Orhan comes face to face with his country’s shameful, unacknowledged past after learning that his grandfather had left him his rug business, skipping over his irritated father, but willed their family’s ancestral house to an Armenian woman, Seda Melkonian, living in a California nursing home.

Aline Ohanesian has made several wise decisions in structuring her debut novel, which is set partly in 1990, partly a century ago. Rather than jumping back and forth frequently between the two eras and several viewpoints, which could have felt abrupt and dizzying, she gives all of her narratives sufficient time to build and take hold.

Also, from Orhan and Kemal to Orhan’s Auntie Fatma, whose tart and feisty attitude spices things up, to the elderly Seda, who feels weighted down by a personal history she can’t escape, her characters are as well-developed as her plots. It's an emotional page-turner of a book, and while it doesn’t shy away from the horrors the Armenians suffered at Turkish hands, it also doesn’t malign an entire people.

And finally, with her intimate focus on one family’s tragic losses, she conveys the enormity of the devastation wrought upon their ethnic group. The Melkonians’ story is both unique and universal.

Those who enjoy piecing together mysteries will find much to appreciate in Orhan’s Inheritance, since no single individual has all the information to resolve a historical puzzle. For prospective readers, the less said about the plot’s specifics here, the better.

Basing her moving work on her great-grandmother’s early life, Ohanesian shows how the past must be acknowledged, and ignorance abolished, in order to move forward. As the centennial of the Armenian Genocide is observed this month, with widespread commemorations and continued urgings for more official recognition, there should be no question that this work of historical fiction – and history itself – has incredible relevance for today.

Orhan's Inheritance was published this month by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (hb, $25.95, 352pp). Thanks to the publisher for the copy that showed up in my mailbox. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The underside of Gilded Age New York: Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels

“Life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns.” This statement made by the opening narrator of Parry’s creative debut also describes its characters and story line, which bursts with extraordinary, Dickensian-style details of 1895 New York.

Amid the city’s grimy waterfronts, opium dens, and other lowlife regions, four impoverished misfits pursue separate missions. The discovery of a newborn baby in the privies outside a tenement prompts Sylvan Threadgill to locate the child’s mother, while Odile Church leaves Coney Island to find her sister, Belle, her sideshow partner before fire killed their courageous mother and destroyed their circus. Lastly, young Alphie waits for her undertaker husband to rescue her from an asylum. Their stories twine together in ways that feel surprising when first encountered but were actually carefully planted from the start.

Emphasizing the plight of women, orphans, and society’s nonconforming outcasts, the setting is superbly showcased, with its medley of sights and smells both wretched and wondrous. Especially recommended for admirers of atmospheric nineteenth-century historicals like Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (2014).

Church of Marvels will be published on May 5th by Ecco (hb, $26.99, 320pp) and in June by Two Roads in the UK (hb, £16.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's April 15th issue, which has a special focus on historical fiction.

I've mentioned here before that I'm not usually drawn to novels dealing with circuses, fairs, magicians, etc..  Growing up hearing grisly tales of the Hartford Circus Fire (1944) and with a fear of clowns had that effect on me.  However, after reading and reviewing a few of these books and enjoying them very much, it may be time to revise my opinions.  Or at least make exceptions!


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

A few announcements and links I've picked up here and there.

First is that I'm signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  It's been a few years since I participated in a reading challenge, aside from the annual Goodreads one, and this one fits my current reading and interests.  The challenge is open to everyone, regardless of geographic location, so I'm in. There are many excellent historical novelists from Australia, and I like the concept behind the challenge: to support and promote books by Australian women.

It helps that I've already read three novels that fit the criteria, so I'm choosing the Miles level - reading six, reviewing at least four.  This should be no problem, especially with Kate Morton's The Lake House (which has cover art posted - go look!) and Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl set to be published in the US this year, among others.  I also have Posie Graeme-Evans' Wild Wood on the TBR.

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A review I linked up on the Historical Novel Society's FB group yesterday has provoked a lot of discussion on the value (or not) that author's notes and bibliographies have for historical novels.  In her mostly positive New York Times review of Aislinn Hunter's new dual-period novel The World Before Us, Penelope Lively spent a paragraph criticizing the existence of Hunter's 3 1/2-page acknowledgments section.  An excerpt:

It seems to be mandatory nowadays for a novelist (especially a historical novelist) to conclude with an extensive list of source material, along with copious thanks in all directions, as if this were a doctoral thesis rather than a work of fiction. I wish this weren’t so. I don’t want to know about the ballast of research. I want simply to enjoy the author’s evocative skill without being told how it was primed.

Do these extras interest you as a reader, or do they pull you out of the experience?  You can see the acknowledgments pages via Google Books (scroll to the very end).  Hunter lists four main print resources and a number of people.  I was surprised that a reviewer would object to an author thanking her sources, including individuals who gave her access to private archives, answered her questions, and provided her with funding; it seemed like proper acknowledgment rather than scholarly excess.

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From a week ago last Sunday, Laura Miller's piece on "our enduring Tudor obsession" praises Wolf Hall (print and TV) while denigrating shows like The Tudors and what she terms "princess novels," such as those written by Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory, for their supposed emphasis on sex and fashion over serious matters such as politics.  Novelist Elizabeth Fremantle provides an excellent rebuttal to many of Miller's points for The History Girls blog.  The comments to the latter are worth reading, too.  Novelists who write about women's lives and issues still struggle to be taken seriously.

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The shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction was just announced, and out of the six titles, four have historical components:  A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, taking place around WWI and later; How to Be Both by Ali Smith, a "literary double-take" set now and in 15th-c Italy; A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, moving from the late '50s forward; and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, set in 1920s London.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A woman's quest for independence in medieval England: Karen Brooks' The Brewer's Tale

Karen Brooks’ The Brewer’s Tale will be a treasure for readers who appreciate an accurately rendered medieval setting and characters who reflect the era. The time frame (the later years of Henry IV’s reign) isn’t one often showcased in historical fiction, especially from a tradeswoman’s perspective.

All of the details on the production of ale and beer in early 15th-century England are fascinating to read – from the collection of ingredients to the actual brewing, the quality testing by officials called ale-conners, and the regulations covering sales and distribution.

On the other hand, the novel’s heroine meets with almost every possible calamity. While the fluid prose is compulsively readable, the periods of uneven plotting made for a bumpy experience. Rarely have I read a novel that provoked such a mixed reaction on my part.

After her father’s death at sea, and upon learning that her home and wealth no longer belong to her family, Anneke Sheldrake takes an unusual step. Using knowledge passed down from her Dutch mother, she decides to start a brewery business to provide for herself, her orphaned siblings, and the servants who depend on them.

But Anneke is a single woman from a respected merchant family, and her decision is greeted with disbelief and shock. Her going into trade herself means deliberately lowering her social status, which is incomprehensible to those around her. “It’s like a sackcloth you can never shuck,” her steward, Adam, tells her. “Once you step in this direction, you can never go back.” Brooks deserves credit for faithfully depicting the social strictures faced by her courageous protagonist.

Anneke’s journey toward independence meets with great success in some avenues – with her secret recipes, her brews are a huge hit – but it’s fraught with difficulties. Monks from the nearby friary have their own competing brew and aren’t afraid to play dirty. Anneke’s cousin becomes more spiteful than ever. And that’s just the beginning. I understand her life isn’t meant to be easy, but some episodes felt so over-the-top dramatic that I put the book down at several points, not sure if I wanted to continue. In the end, I’m glad I persisted.

In addition to the realistic late medieval atmosphere, other highlights include Anneke’s relationships with the people who support her, including Adam, a servant-turned-friend and father figure; an older businesswoman, Alyson, who was plucked right out of Chaucer’s world; and a man who becomes an unexpected love interest.

“You’ve endured more than anyone has a right,” Anneke is told at one point, after yet another period of misfortune. I can’t help but agree. She’s a character desperately in need of a satisfying ending – and this lengthy, entertaining, and sometimes frustrating book provides one at last.

The Brewer's Tale was published by Harlequin MIRA Australia in October 2014 (trade pb, 582pp, Au$32.99).  For those outside Australia, it's available at Fishpond for US$24.97, postpaid. The paperback's not listed at Amazon.com, but the Audible version is.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a NetGalley widget.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A mystery with music: Laura Lebow's The Figaro Murders

While some members of my extended family are skilled musicians, violinists and opera composers among them, I’m about as musically talented as a cardboard box. Fortunately, this didn’t inhibit my appreciation of Laura Lebow’s The Figaro Murders, which transforms Lorenzo Da Ponte, the real-life librettist for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, into a reluctant sleuth.

The setting is Vienna in 1786, a city ruled over by the tolerant, progressive-minded emperor, Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa (and brother of Marie-Antoinette). Da Ponte, the court poet, is on deadline for a couple of important commissions, but he doesn’t mind taking time out to help a friend.

Just before he’s carted off to debtors’ prison, his barber, Johann Vogel, who had recently discovered he was adopted, begs Da Ponte to find his real parents. If they’re from the nobility, they may have the funds to secure Vogel’s release.

The situation gets dicey, though, when Da Ponte drops by to see Vogel’s fiancée, a maid at the Palais Gabler. Hours after Da Ponte’s visit, an annoying aristocratic boy from the Palais is found dead, pushed out of an upper-storey window. Accused of the crime and threatened by Pergen, the minister of police, Da Ponte has only one way to clear his name: he must install himself in the household of the Baron Gabler, the prospective ambassador to St. Petersburg, and root out a suspected Prussian spy.

The amiable Da Ponte makes for good company. Admittedly bored by politics, he doubts his abilities to find the perpetrator despite his healthy ego. “Did Pergen really believe that I could solve this crime? True, I am intelligent and observant, as every poet must be…. But hunting down a spy and a murderer! How had I gotten myself into this mess?”

On top of that stress, to pull off his assumed role as poetry teacher to the Baron’s wife, he has to eat with and lodge alongside the servants. How demeaning! Adding even more intrigue is Da Ponte’s hidden past, and assuming this is first in a series, I look forward to seeing how it features in upcoming books.

European politics, a hint of romance, and the staging of a now-famous opera all play roles in this engaging debut mystery. Spending time in the cultured world of 18th-century Vienna is a highlight. Per her bio, Lebow has a master’s in City Planning, and I could easily picture the layout of Vienna under her direction: its narrow streets, market squares, bureaucratic district, and popular theatres. It was only with the architectural terms that I found myself stumbling, needing to look up what entablatures and telamones were.

For those interested in catching glimpses of Mozart, the “small composer” himself, he’s presented as a devoted husband and father who happens to have impressive musical gifts. Da Ponte is the star here, though, a deliberate choice on Lebow’s part (read her informative author’s note for more). In her solidly researched novel, the librettist gets his turn in the spotlight.

The Figaro Murders was published on March 31st by Minotaur ($24.99 / C$28.99, 320pp + author's note).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The fictional memoirs of George Sand: Elizabeth Berg's The Dream Lover

This work marks best-selling writer Berg’s first major venture into biographical historical fiction, a move that’s partly successful. Her subject is exciting and on-trend: George Sand, the nineteenth-century French writer whose insightful novels took readers by storm, and whose cross-dressing persona and many love affairs scandalized contemporary society.

Born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804, she lived by her own rules, and her imagined voice—warm, sincere, and wise—is wonderfully disarming. As Sand examines her past, from her tense relationships with blood relations through her unhappy marriage and subsequent flight to independence in Paris, we’re introduced to this fascinating woman.

Berg’s descriptive skills are remarkable throughout, but Sand’s actions are too often reported from a distance rather than dramatized. This memoir-like style lets us learn about and admire Sand without placing us in the moment with her. There are exceptions, though, such as her scenes with actress Marie Dorval—her deepest, most passionate attachment—and her philosophical reflections on her continued search for love. It’s at these times that her story feels most immediate and alive.

The Dream Lover is published on April 14th by Random House (hardcover, $28, 368pp).  It appears on the LibraryReads list for April.  This review first appeared in Booklist's Feb 15th issue.

The novel is being heavily promoted, and the packaging is gorgeous. The flourishes on the image above are a little less prominent on the real thing, and her hair blends in more with the dark background.  From the moment I first saw it, I wondered if the image was a softened version of German artist Joseph Karl Stieler's portrait of Nanette Kaula, which appears in Ludwig I's Gallery of Beauties. The jacket doesn't say, but based on the listed source for the painting, it's possible.