Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan, an absorbing portrait of WWII's Night Witches

A superb portrait of wartime valor, Daughters of the Night Sky spotlights the accomplishments of the Russian military aviators known as the “Night Witches.” These all-female Red Army regiments flew harassment bombing missions against the Nazis under cover of darkness, in hand-me-down planes and without radios, to diminish the enemy’s strength and disrupt their sleep. It worked.

We see the action from the viewpoint of Ekaterina (Katya) Ivanova, who has dreamed of flying since childhood. With her widowed mother’s support, she enrolls in a military academy for aviators. The story follows her training, her excitement at acceptance into a volunteer regiment led by a renowned female major, and the daring sorties she flies as her best friend’s navigator – and through significant moments of exhilaration, cameraderie, and sorrow. There’s a subtle romantic subplot, and Katya draws sustenance from her beloved’s letters, but it doesn’t overwhelm her dedication.

There are numerous hardships for Katya and her fellow aviators to overcome, from insufficient rations and icy temperatures to subtle resentment and outright sexual harassment. They enter into a man’s world quite literally, as exemplified by the male uniforms and undergarments distributed to them (complete with flap at the front, which they joke could be a place to hold their lipstick), but they modify them to almost fit. Tough and disciplined, they know they must surpass men’s expectations and accomplishments to be taken seriously. Soviet ideals stressed gender equality, and the novel acknowledges Comrade Stalin’s approval of these military women while providing examples of his totalitarianism.

In historical novels about multiple women, authors tend to slot them into compartments, creating characters representing different societal groups through their contrasting backgrounds: the snobby rich girl vs. the ambitious poor one, city-dwellers vs. naïve country folk, etc. Fortunately, as in her previous two books set in early Quebec, Runyan avoids this temptation. The aviators have unique characteristics and motivations, and despite their occasional disputes, she emphasizes how Katya and the others unite to perform their courageous mission. They form tight quartets – pilot, navigator, armorer, mechanic – whose lives are mutually dependent.

It’s a pleasure to see the author grow in strength as a novelist while adapting to a new historical setting. Her tension has grown sharper, her characterizations deeper, the emotional quality more penetrating. At one key moment, I worried she’d plotted herself into a corner, but this wasn’t the case; I found myself impressed by how this situation was resolved. With its absorbing blend of technical details and emotional resonance, Daughters of the Night Sky is a great way to wrap up your historical fiction reading year, or to start your new year of reading in 2018.

I received this copy for review via NetGalley. Daughters of the Night Sky, officially released by Lake Union in January, is the historical fiction pick for Amazon First Reads in December 2017. If you have a Kindle, I recommend selecting it as your choice!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

A gallery of fifteen historical fiction reads for Jewish Book Month

Jewish Book Month, an annual celebration of Jewish literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, has been in existence since 1943, though its history extends even further back. This year, it's being held between November 12 - December 12, 2017. The dates change each year, since it takes place just before Hanukkah.

As my way of participating in this event, here are 15 historical novels — family sagas, biographical novels, literary fiction, plus a couple of mysteries — featuring Jewish characters and/or focusing on aspects of Jewish history. Some of these are titles I've reviewed previously, and others are on my TBR. I've aimed to provide examples covering a range of geographic settings.

For additional examples, see the Jewish Book Council's historical fiction reading list. Please leave recommendations for other books in the comments!

The Galapagos Islands, WWII: Frances and Ainslie Conway, a married couple working for the Office of Naval Intelligence, embark on a clandestine mission on these distant islands but keep many secrets from each other. Based on historical characters. [see on Goodreads]

France and Germany, mid-13th century:  the story of renowned German rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, the author’s ancestor, as seen from his wife’s viewpoint. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Yemen, 1920: in this intimate saga about Yemenite Jews, a young girl learns about her heritage through the artistry of henna tattoos. [see on Goodreads]

Ireland, 20th century and present-day: the story of the little-known Jewish community in Ireland unfolds through three distinct stories spanning over 100 years. [see on Goodreads]

The US South, 1820s-30s: when a Jewish peddler falls in love with an independent Cherokee woman, he becomes personally entangled in a tragic tale set in motion twenty years earlier. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

St. Thomas, early 19th century: a lyrical fictional biography of Rachel, a young woman from Paris who later became the mother of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. [see on Goodreads]

U.S. Civil War: a young Jewish man runs into trouble when he’s asked to infiltrate a group of suspected Confederate spies. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

London, 1660s and today: in this dual-period literary novel, a modern historian seeks to uncover the identity of a scribe from centuries earlier. [see on Goodreads]

Spain, late 15th century: as the Inquisition solidifies its power across Spain, King Ferdinand's chancellor Luis de Santangel, who comes from a converso family, begins to examine his faith and cultural identity. [see on Goodreads]

Chicago, 1872:  after an Orthodox rabbi is murdered, his daughter, Rivka, teams up with an Irish detective to find the perpetrator. [see on Goodreads]

Connecticut, 1948: after what should be a relaxing summer at "Bagel Beach" along the shoreline turns unexpectedly tragic, the sisters in a close-knit Jewish family must deal with the lengthy fallout. [see on Goodreads]

Palestine, early 20th century: in this work of magical realism (the author's first novel), several Ukrainian families move from Europe to settle in a rural village in Ottoman Palestine. [see on Goodreads]

Cape Ann, 1927: a girl’s secret birth mother and her adoptive mother, one from a prominent Jewish family and the other the  matriarch of a large Irish clan, find their lives intertwining again. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Prague, 1592: a Talmudic scholar investigates the murder of a young Christian girl, hoping to exonerate one of his fellow Jews. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

1920s-1970s Israel, as seen through the experiences of several women over four generations in a Sephardic Jewish family. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Monday, December 04, 2017

Mountains and memory: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, a time-slip novel set in the Spanish Pyrenees

Most time-slip novels in the traditional mold are set in countries with a lengthy and well-documented history. Think Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, and, more recently, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows, all with British settings.

Thanks to AmazonCrossing and the fluid translation of Noel Hughes, English-speaking readers have the opportunity to read one set in the less-common location of Spain: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, which—as one can guess from the title—involves a reincarnation theme.

The modern story follows Brianda, an engineer in her late thirties, who leaves Madrid to stay with relatives in the remote mountain village of Tiles after suffering unexplained anxiety and a dream involving a dark-haired woman, a rain-soaked night, and an encounter with a mysterious man along a treacherously narrow aqueduct. Brianda has always had a great relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Esteban, but when her visions start invading their sex life, as shown in a disturbingly effective scene, she withdraws from him emotionally.

In Tiles, her aunt Isolina welcomes her warmly to Anels House, although her uncle Colau is as gruff as she remembers and seems consumed by a mysterious anger. Enigmatic Colau, whose family is rumored to be cursed, seems destined to be a typical villain but turns out to have perhaps the most intriguing psychological profile among all the characters. Colau is also a longtime researcher of local history, but what Brianda turns up doesn’t please him. And then she meets an Italian man named Corso who’s restoring his family’s manor, Lubich, across the woods from Anels, and to whom she feels an uncanny attraction.

About a third of the way in, the viewpoint switches to the heroine’s earlier counterpart, Brianda of Lubich. The political situation in late 16th-century Aragon, which grows progressively more hostile, takes a while to untangle due to the many individuals and factions involved. It’s a complex portrait of a dark, painful epoch, particularly for women—and one aspect of the plot, as Gabás explains in an afterword, is drawn from actual history.

Classic time-slip elements are introduced one by one: a churchyard with secrets, revelatory documents and other artifacts, and a secret passion that’s hard to deny. When romantic lightning strikes, though, what happens to the couple’s existing partners: are these situations addressed head on, or are the problems brushed aside? The answer is “some of both,” and in one case, disappointingly, it isn’t handled at all. Also, oddly, the modern characters appear not to have surnames.

The novel, moving slowly at first, gains significant power in the last half as the stakes grow higher, and accusations of witchcraft begin to fly. Its strength lies in its portrait of an era and its tragic aftermath, and the pressure this bears on subsequent generations.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access via NetGalley.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini, a biographical novel of computing pioneer Ada Lovelace

Known recently for her Civil War–era fiction, Chiaverini (Fates and Traitors, 2016) takes a transatlantic sojourn for this exquisite biographical novel. It’s a quintessential example of the form, covering nearly her subject’s entire life in an engaging, evenly paced style.

Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was a nineteenth-century English mathematician who is considered an ancestress of the digital age for creating a computing algorithm. Her narration uses an inviting, slightly formal tone that evokes the era.

Much attention is given to Ada’s youth, describing how her overprotective mother, Annabella, seeks to suppress the “bad Byron blood” Ada inherited from her notorious poet father by upholding logic and discipline while discouraging imaginative thought. As Ada matures and finds mentors in inventor Charles Babbage and mathematician Mary Somerville, her relationship with Annabella (a wonderfully complex character) is shown with nuance.

In addition to the well-presented particularities of Ada’s life, including many scenes of society gatherings and technological demonstrations, the novel provokes reflection on interpersonal connections and how they shape one’s development. Wholeheartedly recommended for historical-fiction fans and STEM enthusiasts.

Enchantress of Numbers will be published on December 5 by Dutton. This review was written for Booklist's 10/15 issue.

Some other notes:

- As the daughter of math professors and as a one-time math major (and current math/computer science librarian) myself, I'd been planning to read this novel anyway so was pleased when it showed up in the mail as a Booklist assignment. This is my first experience reading one of Chiaverini's novels. Not long ago, I was asked for recommendations of historical novels that provide a comprehensive portrait of a character by following them through their entire life, or close – and this one fits.

- The portrait on the cover is actually one of Ada (something you don't see much of any more in historical fiction). It was painted in 1836 by British artist Margaret Sarah Carpenter, a scene which is dramatized in the novel.

- Chiaverini has also written the 20-book Elm Creek Quilts series, and some of those books are historical as well.

- Looking for other novels about women in STEM?  See my earlier list, Women in Science and Mathematics: a gallery of historical novels (and read the comments, too).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unbound by John Shors, a novel of freedom, love, and the Great Wall of China

Meng was just a lone woman. She had been born with a voice but told by society not to use it, born with eyes but told not to see. Yet her feet and resolve were unbound. And she would travel onward, coming to better know the world that she was a part of, the steps she needed to take to consider herself free.

Seventh of John Shors’ Asian-set novels, Unbound reimagines a legend well-known in China but perhaps less familiar to Western audiences: that of a young wife determined to reunite with her beloved husband, who was pressed into service constructing the Great Wall.

This version of the tale unfolds during the Ming Dynasty, in the mid-16th century. A year after her husband Fan’s departure, his wife Meng, missing him desperately and concerned about his well-being during the harsh winter atop the wall, crafts a warm coat and sets out on foot from Beijing, in male disguise, to bring it to him. Meanwhile, Fan, a talented craftsman responsible for maintaining the Great Wall’s structural integrity over the six miles between Jinshanling and Simatai, struggles to do his task amid increasingly poor health, regular Mongol attacks, and his cruel commander’s jealous rages and threats.

Meng and Fan’s love never wavers throughout the course of this clearly and straightforwardly written novel. Other subplots soon take prominence, though, such as Meng’s friendship with a man she meets en route (their teasing banter is lively and fun) and Fan’s protectiveness toward Bataar, a twelve-year-old enslaved Mongol boy. The question also arises about whether Bataar’s father will find and rescue him. There are no givens about how any of these situations will play out.

Descriptions abound of the Great Wall’s impressive architecture, with its many crenellations and watchtowers spanning the rugged terrain (“like a dragon sprawled across the mountains”) as well as the strategy behind its design. At times the educational purpose slows down the plot—considerable time is spent explaining how the Wall is built, and the information on how a sedan chair operates feels overlong—but anyone interested in Chinese history should find the material fascinating.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling
Severin.stalder [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the lovers are Chinese, this isn’t a one-sided presentation. The Mongols are fierce fighters, proud of their culture and bounteous grasslands, who want to trade with their resistant southern neighbor. In contrast, the Chinese emperor (who is never seen, only talked about) comes off as rigid and xenophobic. The novel examines the various power differentials of the day: between men and women, the Chinese and Mongols, and the different classes in Chinese society. On her journey, Meng observes how regulations on dress and other customs are selectively relaxed the further one gets from Beijing: a nice touch.

A more thorough copy edit would have caught the occasional typos and misspellings. But for anyone curious about the Great Wall or the lives of average people during part of its construction, Unbound is definitely recommended.

Unbound was published in August in trade pb and ebook. Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Christmas Return by Anne Perry, a holiday mystery novella set in Victorian times

This compact little gem, Perry’s fifteenth Christmas novella, demonstrates her proficiency in writing Victorian-set mysteries. The protagonist is Mariah Ellison, grandmother of Charlotte Pitt from another of Perry’s series.

One day in mid-December, Mariah receives an unusually heavy Christmas pudding at her London residence. Cutting into it, she discovers an ornamental cannonball—a gift that signals events from her past. The sender is Peter Wesley, grandson of her estranged friend Rowena, and he desperately needs Mariah’s help.

Twenty years earlier, in the village of Haslemere in Surrey, Rowena’s lawyer husband, Cullen, had suddenly refused to continue defending his client. Dr. Owen Durward had been accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl, and nobody knew the reasons behind Cullen’s change of heart. Then that same night, Cullen himself was killed, and Durward was subsequently acquitted.

Now Durward has returned to Haslemere again, wanting to dispel any lingering sentiments about his guilt. This dredges up immense pain for the Wesleys, since he’s spreading rumors that Rowena was the cause of his past troubles. Rowena isn’t the fighting sort, so Mariah and Peter decide to take action.

A plain woman in her eighties, Mariah has a reputation of being sharp-tongued and tetchy. In one of many skillful unveilings of human nature’s many facets, the story delves into the origins of her bitterness—and the courage she must exhibit to overcome it.

The atmosphere of close-knit village life in the 1890s feels pitch-perfect, from the homeliness of residents’ holiday decor to the gossip that spreads like a dreadful stain. The characterization is superb, and the work’s short length is perfect for the material. The spirit of the Christmas season is cleverly evoked through the underlying theme that it’s never too late for reconciliations and second chances.

Anne Perry's A Christmas Return was published by Ballantine this month (hardcover, 177pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  This is my second experience with one of her Christmas novellas, the first being A Christmas Escape from 2015. You don't have to have read the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt novels to enjoy this one.

Want to win a copy for yourself? I have an extra, which I'll be giving away to an interested blog reader. Just enter your info in the form below by Friday, December 1st, and I'll draw a random entry after that.  This giveaway is open internationally.  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Good luck!

Update, 12/2:17: Giveaway entries are closed, and a winner has been selected via Random.org. Congrats to Michael C!  I've sent you an email and hope you'll enjoy the book.
Thanks to all who entered!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women of World War II: a gallery of historical novels, new and old

Over the last few days, my husband and I have been getting into the historical crime drama series The Bletchley Circle on DVD, since we'd missed seeing it when it aired on PBS. Set in 1952, the show focuses on a quartet of women formerly part of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park during wartime, and how they reunite to trap a serial killer. We've only seen the first season so far, and I can highly recommend it for its insights into the postwar era and women's lives and hidden talents.  Plus, there are scenes of almost unbearable suspense; you may not want to watch too late at night!

Along these lines, and per a reader's request, here are 10 historical novels evoking women's wartime efforts. This gallery mixes current reads, forthcoming titles, and some older novels which appeared before the period became trendy, and which are deserving of a second look.

In this inspirational novel, four women of different ages and economic backgrounds become friends during their work at a small-town Michigan factory contracted to build ships for the US war effort.  Bethany House, 2006. [see on Goodreads]

Baldwin's literary novel is based on the real life of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indo-American woman who became an undercover wireless operator for the British government in occupied France.  Knopf Canada, 2004.  [see on Goodreads]

Beard's debut dramatizes the story of ordinary women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s to work on a clandestine mission whose true purpose was kept from them.  William Morrow, February 2018. [see on Goodreads]

First in a trilogy, The Chestnut Tree takes place in a small Sussex fishing village and follows the lives of a group of women determined to help with the war effort, and who participate in different ways. Thomas Dunne, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Basing his novel on the wartime lives of his two grandmothers, Cleave depicts a young aristocratic Londoner who forges an inner strength through her traumatic experiences, and two men who love her. Simon & Schuster, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

An adventurous young Welsh singer travels the world during wartime, entertaining the troops, and is asked to assist the British Secret Service, a job she keeps secret from the man she loves. Touchstone, 2012. [see on Goodreads]

The immense courage and heroism of military nurses during WWII are depicted via the author's depiction of two friends half a world apart, one stationed in France, the other in the South Pacific. William Morrow, 2017 (this is the paperback cover). [see on Goodreads]

Called the "Night Witches" by the Germans, this all-female squadron of Russian military aviators was known for courage, daring, and precision. Runyan's third novel (after two historicals about the early settlement of Quebec) follows a young pilot who takes to the skies for her country. Lake Union, January 2018. [see on Goodreads]

From the 1930s through the postwar years, two young African-American women from Mississippi, lifelong friends, find that their destinies lead them across America and Europe; their story involves their wartime service.  BlueHen, 2002. [see on Goodreads]

In this novel about determination and identity, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black woman from Louisiana, decides to pass for white to join the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) when the United States enters the war.  The heroine is eighteen, and although this book is classified as YA, it should interest adult readers as well.  Putnam, 2009. [see on Goodreads]

Looking for yet more on this topic?  See Part 1 and Part 2 of my "women at war" lists, which I'd posted back in 2011.