Tag Archives: historical fiction

Coming Up Next…

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A review of Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral by Maria Doria Russell.

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Come On Down To My Boat

The Gondola Maker

The Gondola Maker: A Novel by Laura Morelli (Laura Morelli, $29.99, 296 pages; also available in trade paper and as an e-book download)

Get ready for a real change of pace. Author Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University and has numerous writing credits to her name. The Gondola Maker is her first work of fiction. Ever the historian, Ms. Morelli spent significant time and effort in crafting an historical novel. She has achieved a fascinating balance between facts and fiction.

The narrator of this sometimes-stark tale is Luca Vianello, a twenty-something son of a prominent gondola builder, who lives in 16th century Venice, Italy. The opening scene is riveting. At the time of the story, Venice is a republic with harsh punishments for lawbreakers whose crimes range from public swearing to murder. The reader is immersed in this militant culture via Luca’s recollections of the punishments he has witnessed in the public square. As in other cultures and eras, crowds gather to witness the offenders pay for their deeds.

All of it was meant to uphold the just and civilized society of Our Great Republic of Venice, so it was explained to me.

Luca makes it clear that there is a double standard in place as graft and corruption thrive in his republic. Life in those times – governed by superstition (sinister left-handedness), seems both similar and alien compared to the 21st century. There are defined social classes, guilds/unions and artists. However, the 16th century guilds and unions are stronger even than the unions of 50 years ago in the USA. On the brighter side, women of today are able to live lives independent of their husbands and family. Luca’s beloved mother is but a possession of his despotic father.

The tale is infused with an ominous tone of foreboding as Luca’s life unravels due to his outburst of temper. The reader is brought along through his efforts to create a new life. Along the way there are fascinating episodes as Luca moves within the workshops of boat makers, fine artists, costumers and the rowdy millieu of the republic’s essential gondola operators.

Ms. Morelli’s writing style is literate and yet she does not overwhelm the reader. Her characters are believable and in Luca’s case, likeable.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

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Vintage Clothes

Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)

The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.

Astor Place Vintage

This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.

In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.

In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.

A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.

This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

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Unchain My Heart

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth (Touchstone, $16.00, 327 pages)

Oscar Wilde (nook book)

Have you every read a work of historical fiction that was oddly engaging, painfully true to the era and to the place depicted? Regardless of whether your answer is “Yes,” or “No,” Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol will easily surpass any read of this genre. Aside from some quotes and references to plays, poems and books by Wilde, this reader began the book with a blank slate as to the man or his life. The thought of a man as well-known and quoted as Wilde spending two years in a dark and dank prison was hard to imagine.

The particular time portrayed in author Gyles Brandreth’s mystery novel is the period that Oscar Wilde served in a British prison, or gaol. His crime was notorious behavior, late 19th century code for engaging in a gay lifestyle. The import of the sentence, two years at hard labor while housed in solitary confinement, is brought to the reader’s consciousness through a graphic narrative by Wilde as he experiences sentencing, intake, daily humiliation and threats at the hands of the prison warders (guards) and governor (warden).

While the first chapters are rather dreary, the story line begins to take shape and a remarkable tale makes it easier to accept the harshness of Wilde’s circumstances. Another literary figure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is blended into the mysterious deaths that take place in the prison. Yes, there are a few sympathetic characters for balance and to move the plot along. Yes, I did check on the internet for the real story behind Wilde’s time in prison. Remarkably, some of the facts are as bizarre as the fiction that is blended into the story.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol was released on May 14, 2013. “Intelligent, amusing and entertaining.” Alexander McCall Smith

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I’m Looking Through You

Silver Girl: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Reagan Arthur Books; $26.99; 416 pages.   Hachette Audio, $19.98; 12 CDs.)

Elin Hilderbrand has placed her characters in Silver Girl on Nantucket Island in homage to its healing properties.   The island is her home which makes the depth of details and atmospheric descriptions nearly magical.   Clearly, writing well about what you know is more than just reporting what the author sees; rather, the emotional connections are more powerful when the soul of the location is translated into words.   Ms. Hilderbrand seems to refine this talent with each subsequent novel.   (A review of The Island: A Novel, a prior work, was posted on this site.)   This reviewer listened to the unabridged audio version of Silver Girl narrated by Janet Metzger and Marianne Fraulo.   Each of these women has a wide range of vocal ability which made listening to the book a delightful and satisfying experience.

In a way this novel is historical fiction, and in another it is a cautionary tale.   The Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme revelation and the subsequent meltdown of many investor fortunes provide the general premise.   Ms. Hilderbrand uses one of her writing strengths, portraying well-developed female characters, to tell a variation of the wife’s side of the scandal.   The reader cannot help but hear the Paul Harvey intonation, “And now, the rest of the story…” as the plight of Meredith Martin Delinn unfolds following the arrest of her husband, Freddy Delinn for bilking investors out of billions of dollars.

Meredith Martin was the talented, studious and obedient Main Line Philadelphia daughter whose aquatic diving and academic skills were superior.   She met and married Freddy, an ambitious student from lesser means, while on the rebound from being dumped by her first love, Toby.   Although the interactions of the characters, their motivations and the impact they have on each other are vital to the life of a story, it is the way that each of them perceives his or her choices in life that makes this story connect with the reader.

Perhaps Meredith’s blind acceptance of authority, first that of her doting parents, and subsequently that of her husband, Freddy, set her up to be collateral damage from the collapse of the pyramid scheme.   Or, maybe it was the knowledge that her actions in life required no courage or daring.   Living a role prescribed for you may be easier than creating your own; however, eventually the shallowness and dissatisfaction must emerge from under the seemingly safe exterior.   In Meredith’s case, worldwide infamy provided her the opportunity to create her own life.   For others of us it may come in the form of a soul mate who appears to lead the way to a better life.

Even if you might be tired of the Madoff story, know that this spin is well worth the read.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy of the audiobook (originally priced at $34.98) was provided by the publisher.

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 352 pages)

dilloway housewife

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were too old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is, first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Shoko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern California-raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begin to experience serious health problems.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a”Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

One one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and she finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in the nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characters of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort in the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Coming Up Next…

A look at a contemporary classic, The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett, soon to be released in trade paperback form.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of 13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro, which will be released by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company tomorrow.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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