historical fiction · review

Ex-Libris, by Ross King

480712Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.

There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.

As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.

A 1471 Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, published by Marsilio Ficino, which is referenced frequently in Ex-Libris.
(Image via Wikicommons)

There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.

Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.

historical fiction · review

The Kinship of Secrets, by Eugenia Kim

37570619An impossible choice separates a Korean family just before the Korean War breaks out in Eugenia Kim’s The Kinship of SecretsThis choice means that Inja is left behind with her relatives while her parents take her slightly older sister, Miran, to the United States. The book follows the two sisters as they grow into teenagers, each wondering about the other while also resenting their parents’ divided attention. This quiet novel takes its time building up the characters and never gets too harrowing (not compared to some things I’ve read). It’s an intriguing meditation on the complexities of family relationships after they’re derailed.

Inja’s story begins as she, her uncle, aunt, and grandparents are fleeing south after North Korean forces capture Seoul. She faces hardship after hardship, but she has her uncle’s and grandparents’ love. Even though everyone’s poor, Korea is home. The original plan was for Inja to rejoin her parents after maybe a year or two. Instead, more than ten years pass. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific and the United States, Miran is growing up as a Korean American with one parent who keeps looking backward and another who’s trying to look ahead.

It isn’t until much later in the book that Inja’s parents succeed in bringing her to the United States, in a wrenching dislocation for her. When that happens, and the sisters meet at last, we are left with a big question about whether or not Inja and Miran’s parents made the right decisions in an impossible situation. Perhaps there would have been a correct action, but so much time has passed that it feels even like a reunion is worse than having been left behind.

I enjoyed the way The Kinship of Secrets recreated post-war South Korea. What I liked most, however, was the way the novel slowly revealed the family secrets. Even though some of the members don’t get along and frequently argue with each other about money, they’re capable of making great sacrifices for each other when necessary. In the end, in spite of the separation, we get to see how these people who share genes and a history attempt to forge themselves into a family.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

What’s Left Unsaid, by Deborah Stone

Trigger warning for child abuse and rape.

41941906Sympathy for fictional characters is often a matter of perspective; we tend to sympathize with characters whose past and point of view we know the most about. Because we understand them, we can forgive. How else could the Dexter series have been so popular? But in Deborah Stone’s unsettling family novel, What’s Left Unsaid, all the sympathy I felt for one character was weighed against the emotional damage she inflicted on all the other characters. Is it possible for someone to be so awful that it doesn’t matter how much they went through? Is there an amount of trauma that means someone gets a free pass to be horrible for the rest of their lives? These are callous questions, but something about the central figure in this book meant that I had to ask.

What’s Left Unsaid is narrated by three family members. Joe, the family patriarch and former broadcasting superstar, chimes in from the afterlife. He passed away 15 years before the book opens. Sasha, his daughter, is a frazzled mother trying to reconnect with her teenaged and newly moody son, Zac. Annie, Sasha’s mother and Joe’s wife, is fading into dementia and physical frailty. Sasha and Annie have reached a kind of detente since their most contentious years, but when Annie slips a family secret loose to her grandson, Zac, he starts stirring things up to find out what his parents and grandmother have been hiding from him.

Through Sasha’s point of view, we learn about a hot-and-cold childhood. Her father delights in her. Her mother insults her constantly and tries to push her aside at every opportunity. Because Sasha grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the adults in her life were more likely to downplay Annie’s corrosive effect on her daughter. Through Annie’s wandering memories, we slowly learn why she is so lacking in empathy and mothering skills: an abusive foster mother who “cared” for Annie after she’d been evacuated to the countryside for the duration of World War II, parents who didn’t know how to help a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, plus one more outrage before she became a mother.

It isn’t hard to see why Sasha is so anxious. Annie was a nightmare of a parent. Sasha doesn’t know what made Annie the way she is. But I have to wonder, even if Sasha did know, does that make up for the terrible things Annie has said and done to her? Now that Annie is losing her memories, reconciliation is impossible. And without the hope that Sasha and Annie might make peace, it’s left to us readers to answer that question on Sasha’s behalf. I’ll admit that I’m very torn. Annie had a horrible life before she married Joe. She suffered more than anyone should ever have to. But then, being abused as a child and a young adult can’t mean that Annie has carte blanche to behave the way she does for the rest of her life. I don’t have much to say about Joe’s story line. It didn’t add much to the novel for me other than a sense of futility as Joe fails his family repeatedly and briefly hogs the spotlight near the end of the book.

What’s Left Unsaid is a hard read. The occasionally clumsy, unnatural dialogue doesn’t help. I’m curious about what other readers will think about this book. Given that I’m a judgmental reader (in the sense that I so often read books like a judge, apportioning blame and guilt left and right), I suspect that my reaction to this book may be other than the author intended. That said, I will give What’s Left Unsaid credit for asking a question I had never considered before. I’m fascinated by the idea that sympathy and forgiveness might have limits and where those limits are. Readers who are similarly fascinated may find food for thought here. Readers looking for a psychological portrait of a family should probably look elsewhere unless they enjoy really troubled mother-daughter stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 28 October 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

38236861The more historical fiction I read—especially when it’s paired with a contemporary narrative, like a strong underline—the more I realize that society is always in crisis. The old guard hold on fiercely to what they believe is the right way of doing things. Their children may buck the system a little, but they were raised to see the world the way their parents do. The grandchildren, at least as presented in Barbara Kingsolver’s wrenching novel Unsheltered, offer a bit of hope that we might learn from the mistakes of the past and live better than their forbearers.

In the present (plus or minus a few years), Willa is approaching the end of her rope. The house she and her family have inherited in Vineland, New Jersey, she is informed, will soon start to collapse around them. Her husband, having lost his well-paid position at a closed university, scrapes by as an adjunct. Her son just lost his partner to suicide a short time after the birth of their son. Her father-in-law is dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her daughter, Tig, has mysteriously returned from Cuba, carrying an emotional burden she won’t talk about. Perhaps worst of all, Willa seems to be the only one who can see that the family is hovering at the edge of penury.

In the 1870s, Thatcher Greenwood has just taken up a position as science teacher at a school in the Landis Township (now Vineland). He, his wife, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law have moved into a house owned by the mother-in-law, a house that is suffering structural integrity problems similar to the ones Willa’s house has. Thatcher also has similar problems with money. (Teachers don’t make enough money in any century.) But what angers him the most is the way that the principal of the school refuses to let Thatcher teach anything that might challenge a fundamentalist Christian view of the world. No chemistry experiments or microscopes. Certainly no Darwin. Not even a field trip to the nearby Pine Barrens.

Unsheltered is both a slow burn of a book and a pointed examination of the logical dead ends American society keeps hitting. Reading about Willa and Thatcher’s months in Vineland/Landis Township felt like I became an invisible member of the families. I witnessed little moments of tenderness and love as well as bitter arguments about the right way of things. Both Willa and Thatcher are peacemakers. They keep calm and carry on as much as possible. After all, they believe that they are the ones keeping the families together and sheltered. It takes an other character to make them realize how much they themselves have contributed to their untenable positions. In the end, both Willa and Thatcher are asked if it’s worth it to keep working towards their original goals of big house, keeping up appearances, and working with the system—or if it’s time to break ties and start over with a new plan.

Unsheltered fits with Kingsolver’s other novels, though it has less to do with nature than Flight Behavior or Prodigal Summer. This book once again shows us the ways we can tangle ourselves up in when we have to juggle the expectations of others with one’s own desires or curiosity. Even though it takes a while to get off the ground and contains blatant references to American politics around 2016 that could get dated, Unsheltered offers so many questions to think about that desperately needed to be asked. I think this book would be terrific for book groups, as well as for readers who look around and wonder if there’s a better way to live. After all, the materially comfortable and politically apathetic (or impotently furious) way we live now can’t last forever.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who feel stuck and those who feel depressed when they turn on the news.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Collector’s Apprentice, by B.A. Shapiro

38746165In The Collector’s Apprentice, B.A. Shapiro continues her series of standalone novels of fictionalized art history. This novel draws its inspiration from the life and work of art collector Alfred Barnes, though it puts the focus on the woman modelled on Barnes’ assistant. It also condenses and sensationalizes events to deliver a thrilling story of murder, inheritance, and the Post-Impressionist revolution.

The Collector’s Apprentice covers three periods in the life of Paulien Mertens, alias Vivienne Gregsby. In 1929, she is on trial for the murder of her mentor and employer, Dr. Edwin Bradley. In 1922, she is on the streets of Paris, trying to make a living after being cast out by her family. In 1920, she is falling in love in London with a man who we learn, over the course of the novel, is responsible for ruining her life.

All Paulien/Vivienne wanted was to run a museum. As the daughter of a Belgian industrialist who dared to go against general tastes to collect Post-Impressionist works of art, Paulien dreams of creating her own museum. She is deeply in love with the emotional expressiveness of the new art coming out of France, with its bold colors and unorthodox primitiveness. But after getting engaged to a conman who destroyed the finances of dozens (and drove one man to suicide), no one will hire Paulien and her family has kicked her out. It’s only after she changes her name and is hired to translate for American art collector Bradley that she starts to rise again. The chapters set in 1929 and the reappearance of Paulien’s fiancé, George, make it clear that there are more bumps in the road head.

Le bonheur de vivre, by Matisse, is frequently referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

The Collector’s Apprentice is as much in love with Post-Impressionism as Paulien is. There are numerous scenes in which Paulien gets to mingle with the brightest lights in Paris. She has dinner at Gertrude Stein‘s house. She swoons for Henri Matisse. She gets to scour Paris for the latest, most daring paintings and sculptures. This book is so full of references to art and artists that readers who aren’t familiar with the Post-Impressionists will want to run to Wikipedia to get caught up. Even readers who are familiar with the art will probably want to refresh their memories. The descriptions of the works of art and their meaning are very evocative, but mere words can’t really capture the colors and sense of movement in a painting like Dance II.

On the other hand, it takes a while for the cat-and-mouse game to steal the show. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I understood why George kept showing up. I kept wanting to yell at Paulien for the way she keeps letting him manipulate her or her first feeble attempts to use him. But once the plot moves away from the art world and Paulien’s battles of will with her mentor and the mystery takes over, I loved reading about the twists and turns Paulien and George’s relationship.

The Collector’s Apprentice has much to recommend itself to readers, especially readers who also enjoy art. Paulien’s journey from naif to connoisseur and (possibly) con artist is a delight to watch. The best parts, for me, were at the end, when Paulien is at her greatest peril. I enjoyed the ekphrastic sections, but the thriller/mystery plot hooked me completely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

historical fiction · review

In Your Hands, by Inês Pedrosa

39895942Unlike anger, which writers can call to readers mind by making us think about the physical symptoms—pounding heart, clenched muscles, etc.—we’ve all felt, love is harder to evoke. Not all of us have felt the all-encompassing, possibly life-ruining love that the three protagonists have in Inês Pedrosa’ In Your Hands (translated by Andrea Rosenberg). The protagonists do their best to explain their feelings, from familial love to friendship to companionship to erotic passion. Some of the types of love shown here baffled me; this novel has permutations that I’ve never seen before in fiction. But by the end, even without being able to call on common experiences or symptoms of love, I think In Your Hands is successful in its explorations.

The novel opens with Jenny remembering her wedding day in 1935, when she married the great love of her life, António. On the very next page, we learn with a shock that the great love of António’s life is Pedro. Though she was upset, Jenny decided that being close to António and sharing a part of his life was enough. There were several chapters when my ire rose on Jenny’s behalf. António is no prize. He gambles. He’s jealous of Pedro. He’s temperamental. But by the end of her section, I lost my pity for Jenny. She chose her life and never changed her mind.

Part of what helped Jenny was that she had a child to care for. Camila is not Jenny’s biological child, but Jenny raised her up after the girl’s mother was deported and murdered by Nazis. While Jenny’s section is very much of the old world, Camila comes of age after World War II. She has options her adopted mother didn’t have. But when love comes for her, Camila is smitten hard and her life is disrupted just as much as Jenny’s was. The last part of the novel is narrated by Camila’s daughter, Natália, who saw how much love derailed her mother and grandmother’s lives and turned away from her great love to marry a safe man. But, by playing it safe, Natália’s life grows hollow. Her life makes us wonder if an all-consuming love is worth the price of pain and loss that her forbearers felt.

Andrea Rosenberg’s translation is wonderful throughout; she ably translates the slippery language about emotion and preserves the distinct voices of each of the narrators. Overall, In Your Hands is one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever read. It’s definitely not about falling in love. It’s narrated by women looking back on their lives. One has no regrets. One is sad but has made peace with her past. The last has to decide if she wants to take the plunge again. I wasn’t sure about it when I started reading it, but In Your Hands rewards the persistent.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

historical fiction · review

A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil

Trigger warning for rape.

41806096A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil and translated by Barbara Romaine, presents two lives. On one side, Aisha lives a life of surprising good luck and appallingly bad luck, pursued by literal and figurative wolves in early twentieth century Egypt. On the other, Howard Carter faces his own ups and downs on fortune’s wheel as he struggles to luck into a big find in Egypt’s ancient necropolises. The characters meet twice in the first two thirds of the novel, bumping into each other purely by chance. In the last third, they meet once more and Carter persuades Aisha to accompany him to the Valley of the Kings, convinced that she will change his luck.

At the beginning of the book, we are given no clue that the novel will culminate with the unsealing of Pharaoh Tutankhamen‘s tomb in 1922—at least until Carter arrives on the scene. A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore opens with Aisha fleeing with her mother to a Catholic (possibly Coptic) convent in Asyut. Aisha’s lecherous uncle will do terrible things to her if she is not taken in, her mother argues. This is the start of Aisha’s drifting through life. Flooding chases her from the convent a few years later and she fetches up at the home of a rich friend from the convent school. Her gift for languages helps her reach a certain amount of independence in Cairo before her past catches up to her. Meanwhile, Carter appears in Aisha’s life in spectacular fashion at a party, during which he points out to everyone how much resembles paintings of a beautiful ancient Egyptian princess. He then pours out his life’s story to her during their two meetings.

Carter’s biography (somewhat altered by Qandil) makes for very interesting reading—as long as one doesn’t mind reading about a white man in a colonized country barreling around arguing with people about the best way to do things. Aisha, on the other hand, became less interesting to me as she faded into a listener. There are times when I thought I understood her, but she mostly serves as a target for other characters’ whims. She has so little agency in this book that I was angry on her behalf. Feminist readers will probably be put off by how this book treats her.

The best part of the book (apart from Aisha’s brief stint as a translator for the Egyptian political newspaper, al-Liwa) is the last third, which contains a counterfactual history of the last part of Pharaoh Akhenaten‘s reign and how Tutankhamen came to the throne. Carter manically searches for a big find while Aisha grows more fearful of the warnings of local Egyptians for them to leave things alone.

Romaine ably captures Qandil’s take on Carter’s story by preserving the long, sometimes fanatical speeches given by characters who are utterly convinced of the rightness of their behavior. Like Aisha, we are expected to listen to all of these ideas and thoughts and left to judge the characters who speak them as guilty, innocent, sane, insane, prejudiced, tolerant, and so on. Qandil’s prose took some getting used to. I hung on because I was so interested in reading an Egyptian version of Carter’s story. Readers who can stomach Aisha’s story may enjoy seeing Qandil’s perspective on the rapacious world of early Egyptology.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

Unbroken seal on Tutankhamen’s tomb before excavation (Image via Wikicommons)