Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Time's Betrayal by David Adams Cleveland, a unique American epic of history, family, and identity

How are our lives unknowingly motivated by our ancestral past? In its scope, artistry, and depiction of the interlinked cause-and-effect patterns spanning more than a century, Cleveland’s (Love’s Attraction, 2013) third novel raises the bar for multi-generational epics.

At its heart is one man’s quest to uncover the truth about his late father, John Alden III, who disappeared behind the Iron Curtain in 1953 for reasons unknown. Peter Alden’s recollections begin with his own 1960s youth at the Etonesque Massachusetts prep school co-founded by his abolitionist great-grandfather: a place where his father’s reputation as a star athlete, archaeologist, and war hero looms large.

The expansive yet tightly controlled narrative, in which numerous mysteries are compellingly unearthed, spins out to encompass post-WWII Greece, the race to decipher the ancient Greek script known as Linear B, the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall’s dismantling, and a Civil War battle’s aftermath. The writing is gripping throughout, incorporating both haunting lyricism, in its characters’ yearning to recapture a lost golden age, and a high-stakes tension evoking the best Cold War thrillers.

Cleveland is particularly strong in presenting the complicated entanglements of love and betrayal and the barrier between freedom and oppression that each generation contends with. While its length may appear daunting, this unforgettable tour de force is well worth the time.

This (starred) review was submitted for Booklist's October 15th issue, which is just out - and the book itself is just out.  It was published in hardcover on October 1 by Fomite Press ($24.95, 1170pp).

Some other notes:

- This is the best book I've read all year, and I've read many excellent ones.  It's also the longest novel I've read, ever—see the page count above—but, after reading the first 100 pages, I was hooked and eagerly looking forward to the next thousand. I took a week off in mid-August, planning to catch up on work around the house and read maybe 100 pages a day so I'd have it finished by the deadline. Instead, I spent a good part of the week with this book and don't regret it.  (It does move quickly.)

- Condensing the reading experience into a review of just over 200 words wasn't easy; there's so much more that could be said. I could also note that there are two strong and multi-faceted female characters, and multiple complicated love affairs, and that the storyline delves deeply into the real-life history of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed secrets to the Soviets up through the 1950s. I never considered Cold War thrillers to be my type of book, but this novel was.  For more information, you might read the publisher's blurb on Amazon.

- What to compare it to?  For the family saga aspect and mysteries related to it, it would appeal to Kate Morton's fans, although it's more ambitious than even her novels.  It should be on the radar of readers of spy thrillers, obviously. It's also a moving coming-of-age tale. Best of all is seeing how the multiple story lines, characters, and time periods come together.

- The book arrived with glowing blurbs from Robert Olen Butler and Bruce Olds, the latter of whom had said, among other things, "It is in a league of its own and a class by itself," which is true. I can't think of another novel quite like it.  If you read it, I hope you'll come back and tell me what you thought!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A visual preview of the winter-spring 2018 season in historical fiction

Through reading historical fiction, readers have the opportunity to identify with characters from around the world, experiencing their cultures and personal histories along with them.   As such, here's a collection of 10 novels from my "want to read" list and the settings where they take place.  All will be published in 2018. Where will your historical fiction reading take you next?



Japanese-occupied Korea and Manchuria, in the story of a "comfort woman" during WWII and her sister, who searches for peace and healing in the present day.  Putnam, Jan 2018.



Early Maoist China, as a family is torn apart in the wake of consequential decision. Little A, March 2018.



Havana in 1958 and Miami in the present day, as a young writer uncovers her grandmother's life during the Cuban Revolution.  Berkley, Feb 2018.



1950s Iran, in the company of feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzhad, whose feminist, modernist poetry created controversy in her world.  Ballantine, Feb 2018.



Revolution-era America, as Eliza Schuyler meets a charismatic young officer and forges a place for herself in a fledgling nation. William Morrow, April 2018.



Early 17th-century Rome; a YA novel-in-verse focusing on Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a courageous woman who fought for artistic achievement in a world of controlling men. Dutton, Mar 2018.



1920s Bombay, with the first female lawyer in the city investigating whether a wealthy Muslim's three widows were deliberately misled into forsaking their rightful inheritance. Soho, Jan. 2018.



Philadelphia of 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic; a family takes in an orphaned child who gives them hope for the future. Berkley, Feb. 2018.



The years from 1492 to the present, as the history of Spain and Portugal's secret Jews unfolds via the story of Columbus's interpreter and his descendants, who come to settle in New Mexico. Doubleday, April 2018.



Albany, New York, in 1879; the heroine of Oliveira's earlier novel My Name Is Mary Sutter, searches for two sisters who have gone mysteriously missing. Viking, Feb. 2018.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon, an immersive journey into Jewish women's history

First published in 1997, Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale came to my attention through an email newsletter from its publisher, Open Road, which had reissued the Lambda-award winning historical novel as an ebook in 2013. It was only $1.99 and had many positive reviews, so I snapped it up.

The title refers to its heroines’ eventual emigration to America from the Pale of Settlement, the region in western Russia where Jews had been allowed to live since Catherine the Great’s time.   The sentiment could also reflect the terrible anti-Semitism they and their families were forced to confront, again and again.

Beyond the Pale follows the coming-of-age stories of two women: Chava Meyer, born in 1889 in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia (modern Moldova); and Gutke Gurvich, who was brought to the city as a child by her mother a generation earlier, and who grows up to become a talented midwife. Unlike most tales of immigration, the novel devotes about equal time to their lives in Europe and the United States.

Their paths cross several times, firstly at Chava’s birth; Gutke is the woman who delivers her. Years later, they meet up again while traveling to Odessa, and finally once more amid the teeming working-class immigrant community on New York’s Lower East Side. There Gutke and her partner become role models of a sort for Chava, a teenager awakening to her love for another young woman.

Jewish life and traditions at the turn of the 20th century are re-created with depth and fullness, from the bathhouses of Kishinev to the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, and the varied social movements to improve labor conditions (and the pushback from employers). For anyone seeking a historical novel that “takes you there,” this will be your book. The novel has many scenes that will stay with me: the birth of Chava’s younger sister, Sarah, in which their rabbi father blames the spirit of Lilith for his newborn’s wandering eye; Chava and her cousin Rose’s dinner at the New York apartment of Gutke and her partner, who dresses like a man; plus other, more tragic moments, such as the 1903 pogrom that devastates Chava’s family (a historical incident). The only real drawbacks to the telling are a couple of disconcerting viewpoint switches.

October is LGBTQ History Month, and Beyond the Pale has become a classic novel in this field. It’s also an immersive read for anyone interested in Jewish history, immigrant themes, or a work that celebrates the supportive relationships between women of all ages.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Research Journey, a guest post from Barbara Ridley, author of When It's Over

Barbara Ridley, whose debut novel When It's Over is just out from She Writes Press, is here with an essay about her research discoveries.

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The Research Journey
Barbara Ridley

When I embarked on the journey of writing my novel When It’s Over, I had no idea how much research would be involved, where that research would lead me, or how much fun it would be. I was writing a novel based on my mother’s experience as a refugee during World War II, and I had recorded an oral history with her twenty years before her death, so I figured I had most of what I needed. Plus, as a child growing up in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, I was raised on so many anecdotes about “The War," I often felt as if I had lived through it myself.

As I began to write, however, I realized my knowledge just scratched the surface. There was so much I didn’t know. When did rationing go into effect? When did the bombing start? How did ordinary people cope with the war dragging on for 6 years? Maybe because my father had been a historian, it was in my blood somehow: I felt compelled to understand what life was like and to get the details right.

So I researched. I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, found wonderful resources online, and did some good old-fashioned on-the-ground research in the British Airways Museum at London’s Heathrow Airport, the “Mass Observation” archives at the University of Sussex, and walking the streets of Prague, Paris and London—the settings used in the novel.

But then I made a remarkable discovery that changed the focus of the second half of the novel: I came upon boxes of letters that my father had written during the last two years of the war. By then it was clear that Hitler would be defeated, so the burning question became: what kind of society should be created out of the ruins of war?

I had always known the Labour Party had won the election of 1945, with a huge majority, and had gone on to pass landmark legislation that established the National Health Service and other pillars of the welfare state. But how was it that Churchill, the heroic war leader, suffered such a huge political defeat immediately after the victory parades were over? My father was active in the progressive political movement of the time, and his letters provided unique insights, which I was able to incorporate into the novel.




 ~ 

credit: Limor Inbar
Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review and BLYNKT. This is her first novel.

Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and she has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud. She enjoys hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing in the mountains. Visit her online at barbararidley.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Seed Woman by Petra Durst-Benning, a novel of the seed trade in mid-19th century Germany

I enjoy reading novels that focus on “microhistories” – that is, a narrow aspect of social history and its impact on the surrounding world. Petra Durst-Benning’s The Seed Woman, first published in 2005 in German and recently translated by Edwin Miles, narrows its gaze on the seed-traders of Gönningen in the Swabian Mountains of southwestern Germany.

Many residents of this small village made their living in the seed trade. These enterprising men and women used various methods of travel to distribute their goods on established routes (their “Samenstrich,” or seed-line) around the country, throughout Europe, and even abroad.

The book will whisk you away on its characters’ journeys on foot and via cart and aboard ship to the Netherlands and across the Black Sea to distant Odessa. Farmers and gardeners depended on this regular commerce to grow fruit and vegetable crops and plant heirloom bulbs to beautify their environment.

The novel’s heroine is Hannah Brettschneider, an innkeeper’s daughter from Nuremberg who had become pregnant after a one-night stand with one of the hotel guests. When she makes her way to Gönningen to find her baby’s father, Helmut Kerner, he’s astonished to see her again. Her presence creates instant tension, because Helmut’s already agreed to marry the beautiful Seraphine. A woman with her head in the clouds, Seraphine had been told from a young age that she was a child brought by the fairies… and she actually believes it.

Pulled in two directions, Helmut ultimately decides his responsibility lies with Hannah and her child. What’s more, Hannah’s cheerful personality meshes well with his, and as they get to know each other better, they make a good couple. Helmut’s engagement to Seraphine gets broken off, but he doesn’t seem to mind; with her disconnection from reality, I couldn't blame him. However, Seraphine refuses to give up on Helmut. Her disturbed, obsessive behavior sends the book down many dramatic, often ridiculous avenues.

The storyline would have been more believable if Seraphine’s personality had been more nuanced. Despite the issues with character development, the rest of the plot was interesting enough that I kept turning the pages. I enjoyed viewing the changing of the seasons along with the Kerner family, learning more about the seed trade, and seeing Hannah’s ongoing transformation from city girl to “seed woman.”

The Seed Woman will be published next week by AmazonCrossing in pb and ebook. This was a Read Now title on NetGalley, and thanks to the publisher for enabling access to it.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A gallery of autumn historical fiction reads


Julie Wright, the lovely blogger at the Hungry Bookworm, invited me to write a guest post for her site. I came up with a gallery of autumn-themed reads - six historical novels incorporating the theme of autumn, either literally or symbolically.

Jump on over to the Hungry Bookworm to take a look, and thanks to Julie for the opportunity!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Playlist for The Language of Trees, a guest post by Steve Wiegenstein

Steve Wiegenstein, whose novel The Language of Trees was published on Tuesday by Blank Slate Press, has contributed an essay that really appealed to me, as both a reader of fiction set in the past and a fan of traditional folk and old-time music. I was familiar with about half of the songs he describes below in his playlist, and I'll be checking out the rest. The Language of Trees is third in the Daybreak series, set amid a Utopian community in 19th-century Missouri, and it can also stand alone. I'd reviewed the first book, Slant of Light, on this site a few years ago.  Welcome, Steve!


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Playlist: The Language of Trees
Steve Wiegenstein

Say “historical novel” to someone, and they’re likely to think of swords and swooning, which is why I’ve always been ambivalent about the phrase when it’s applied to my novels. There are no swords and essentially no swooning in my books; instead, I’m interested in everyday people swept up in extraordinary events, and how they cope with the tides of history. These are universal themes, and I’m particularly drawn to the odd tandem of optimism and exploitation that so often characterizes the American experience. So I listen to music that connects me to the struggles and triumphs of ordinary Americans. I immerse myself in period music when I’m writing and editing because doing so helps me recreate the mentality of people of the era, and in addition, it helps me work into the vocabulary of the times. Songs, letters, speeches, and diary entries all help make my diction accurate, but songs in particular help make it poetic. Here are some of the songs on my playlist while I was creating The Language of Trees.

Hard Times Come Again No More – Nanci Griffith

As I mentioned, I’m interested in the struggles of ordinary people and how those struggles reflect the concerns of the time, and few songs of the 19th century do that as well as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” People critique Foster’s maudlin and occasionally racist lyrics, but he also came up with songs of genius, and this is one of them. The “pale drooping maiden who toils her life away” is an image all too familiar in the America of that age, especially as the Industrial Revolution spread across the country and the concentration of production in factories, many of which employed young women because of their reliability and low wages, became widespread. As a native of the burgeoning industrial area around Pittsburgh, Foster would have seen this trend firsthand. Of the hundreds of recorded versions, I like Nanci Griffith’s, as she combines a great authenticity of presentation with a modern voice. The song is both old and new in her take.

Lily of the West – Van Colbert

There’s a lot of obsessive and seemingly hopeless love in my latest book, so I found myself listening to traditional music that reflects that thinking, of which there is an abundance. I try to listen only to period music that I can be sure my characters would have known (with a few exceptions, noted below), so songs that were identified in Vance Randolph’s great collection Ozark Folksongs get high priority. One of those, and one of the starkest, is “Lily of the West,” sometimes called “Flora.” There’s an eerie matter-of-factness in the way the narrator describes his fixation with Flora, her casual betrayal, and his murder of her new lover. The minor key and relentless speed of the song add to its effectiveness. Like most American folksongs, it’s an import from the British Isles, in this case Ireland, which helps explain the odd phrasing of some of the verses. Most people know it from the two Chieftains versions of the song, or the early Bob Dylan rendition, but I’m partial to Van Colbert’s unadorned version.

Fair and Tender Ladies – June Carter Cash

Male fixation is a recurring theme in folk music; female endangerment, alas, is another, and its frequent companion. The endangerment can be physical, spiritual, or economic. Perhaps it’s most bluntly stated in the opening lines of “Hard Is the Fortune”: “Hard is the fortune of all womankind; / They’re always controlled, they’re always confined. / Controlled by their parents until they are wives, / Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.” When Josephine angrily tells Bridges in The Language of Trees that his promises are like the stars on a summer’s morning, she’s quoting “Fair and Tender Ladies,” an Appalachian song with antecedents in 17th-century England. I know it had reached the Ozarks, because in the 1940 book Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society a contributor recalls hearing it in 1906. June Carter Cash’s version is appropriately plaintive, and you get to hear her autoharp playing as a bonus. Another lovely version is the one by Bread and Bones.

Little Maggie – Doc Watson

I may be fudging on whether “Little Maggie” was a period piece during the time of the novel (1887-88), but music historians have identified family members of this tune since the late 1800s. So I don’t mind claiming it as a song of the era. It’s a great addition to the “songs of hopeless love” category; I first heard it on a recording by Doc Watson, and that’s still my favorite, although you hear the Stanley Brothers’ version more often. I spent several years trying to get my guitar playing to be as clean and effortless as Doc Watson’s until I realized I didn’t have the talent for it. But that’s all right—few do! I was fortunate to see Doc Watson perform a couple of years before he died, and he had passed the fast licks on to younger members of his band, but his voice was as distinctive as ever.

Mercy O Thou Son of David – Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church congregation

When Barton Braswell starts “The Lord’s Barn” in The Language of Trees, this is the type of hymn I envision them singing: shape-note hymns, created so that even those who could not read music could follow their parts in hymnals such as Southern Harmony, Union Harmony, and The Sacred Harp. This song can be found in William Walker’s Southern Harmony from 1835. Shape-note singing, unearthly and unforgettable, uses a mix-and-match approach to tunes and lyrics; the lyrics for this hymn are from 1779, and although any tune with an 8-7-8-7 meter can be used with them, a frequent choice is a tune called “Restoration,” composed in 1758. My Unitarian-Universalist friends will recognize Restoration as the tune for their hymn “This Old World,” from which I take the title of my second book.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain – Andy M. Stewart

In The Language of Trees, Ambrose Gardner sings this song and recollects that his commanders in the Civil War had sometimes banned it and other songs like it as being bad for morale. Such incidents did in fact happen during the war, with the immensely popular “Lorena” a frequent victim of censorship. Sad songs about lost love just don’t pep up the boys for battle. The lyrics are American, but the tune is Scottish, so I like hearing the late great Scottish balladeer Andy M. Stewart do his version of the song.

The Farmer Is the Man – Pete Seeger

As Charley Pettibone brings his prisoner to town in The Language of Trees, he grows concerned by the man’s cursing, which he knows will bother the townsfolk as they ride to the jail. So he sings to drown it out, and the song he chooses is “The Farmer Is the Man,” an anthem of the Grange movement of the Midwest. The growing rural/urban divide of the late 19th Century is an important theme in this book, and “The Farmer Is the Man” illustrates that divide perfectly. The song draws a vivid contrast between the farmer, who is dressed shabbily, whose wagon is broken down, and who “lives on credit till the fall,” and the essential nature of his work. The lyrics are a much more earthy restatement of a song by “the singing evangelist,” Knowles Shaw, who was popular during the 19th century. And who better to deliver a song of agrarian protest than Pete Seeger?

The Arkansas Traveler – Jimmie Driftwood

My grandfather was a square dance fiddler, whose fiddle (with rattlesnake rattle inside) still remains in the family. “The Arkansas Traveler,” which Josephine helps Jimmy Pettibone play in The Language of Trees, is one of the first tunes any fiddler or banjo player would learn. Today you can find a lot of instrumental versions, but few with the song’s mischievous lyrics, which in my mind is a shame. The dynamic between Traveler and Farmer, rube and city slicker, is multilayered and eternal, and after a while we can’t tell who is outfoxing whom. Jimmy Driftwood was a great champion of Ozark folk music, so it’s only appropriate to listen to his version of the song. Another favorite of my grandfather’s was “Rye Whiskey,” and I recall his glee when he would reach the verse in which “Hiccup! Oh golly, how bad I do feel” is repeated six times.

Overture to The Flying Dutchman – London Festival Orchestra

Adolphus Kessler, the visiting geologist in The Language of Trees, is a devotee of opera, and for a German Chicagoan who fancies himself culturally current, that could only mean Wagner. Riots did indeed occasionally break out at Wagner concerts, as Kessler mentions, and although I’m sure there was plenty of aspiration without comprehension in the public’s Wagner frenzy during the late 19th Century, one can’t listen to certain Wagner pieces (such as this early one) without imagining the marvelous sweep of emotions that would have come over an audience upon first hearing this insanely ambitious piece of music.

Angel Band (a.k.a. “My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast”) – Jimmy Bullard/Beston Barnett

I first came across this song in 1972, when my mom brought home the album “Music of the Ozarks” from the library. It was produced by National Geographic magazine, and I have to say, it felt a little strange to see a national magazine putting out a compilation of music from my own home area. I felt quite exotic for a while. We were old-hymnal people in our church, favoring Fanny J. Crosby and the like, so this kind of unadorned, rather mystical hymn was foreign to me. When the angels gather around the dying narrator, and he declares, “I hear the noise of wings,” a chill comes through me that doesn’t go away for a long while. Most people nowadays are familiar with this song through Ralph Stanley’s version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, although, alas, it omits the crucial verse with the noise of wings, as does Johnny Cash’s version. Too creepy for some, I suppose. I know nothing about Jimmy Bullard, the singer of that original experience, except that he lived in Timbo, Arkansas, and did a wonderful job on that now-unavailable vinyl LP. In my novel, the hymn is sung the way it’s intended to be—around a deathbed. Since Jimmy Bullard’s version can’t be found, and Ralph Stanley’s version is so familiar, try listening to Beston Barnett, who incredibly enough turns the mournful wail that we’re accustomed to into a joyful, reggae celebration of heaven-going.

author Steve Wiegenstein
Pretty Bird – Hazel Dickens

Staying on the “chills” theme for a moment, anyone who doesn’t get chills listening to Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” needs—I’m not sure what they need, maybe a heart transplant. This song ties in with the earlier theme of a woman’s longing for freedom, coupled with the aching, mournful delivery of a true Appalachian artist. This is not period music; Dickens composed the song in 1973. But oh my goodness, it rings with the truth of eternity. Listen, and then go buy that “Hazel and Alice” album. You know you want to.

Tam Lin and Clyde’s Water – Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

I had Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads EP pretty much on continuous play while writing the last four chapters of my novel, for several reasons. First, these two songs in particular have thematic connections. “Clyde’s Water” (which they title as “Clyde Waters”) has the powerful imagery of overwhelming love that struggles against all impediments, human and natural, and in addition it has one of the scariest drowning scenes in all of music. “Tam Lin,” one of the weirdest and most magical of the Child ballads, has a moment that affirms the idea that holding on obsessively to the one you love, against all reason and good sense, might actually work, and instead of ending up with a fierce beast, you find yourself with a shivering, naked man to wrap up and take home. So it has a thread of hope among all the strangeness. Finally, Mitchell and Hamer stay true to the ancient roots of the songs while recasting them in a contemporary way. They capture the old in the new, and that action speaks to me as I seek to do the same in my creative work.

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Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Slant of Light (2012) and This Old World (2014). Slant of Light was the runner-up for the David J. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and This Old World was a shortlisted finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award in Historical Fiction. Steve grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and worked there as a newspaper reporter before entering the field of higher education. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri. Visit him online at https://stevewiegenstein.wordpress.com.