Benacre’s (Easter, Smoke and Mirrors, 2014) short story collection trails an Irishman who’s been training most of his life to carry out a planned terrorist strike in London.
In the author’s previous novel, Michael McCann was an Irish Republican Army Cleanskin (akin to a sleeper terrorist with no criminal background) stationed in London to help launch a bombing on Easter Friday. This collection of chronological stories, starting in 1968, follows his life from his birth to the 2016 attack. Provisional IRA leader Frank O’Neill courts 15-year-old Michael for the cause, eventually sending him to Libya and later to Afghanistan to train as a soldier. Frank keeps Michael “under wraps” until the IRA makes plans for an assault on such a grand scale that they believe it will finally unite Ireland. The stories here are comparable to chapters in a novel; the tale of Michael in Afghanistan fighting with the mujahedeen against the Russians, for instance, is comprised of four stories that make up a single narrative. As a result, readers will likely want to read the stories sequentially, like a novel (as the author recommends), to subvert potential confusion. Some of them, including the one-page “Murder by Suicide,” could have been amalgamated with others to avoid repetitiveness. Michael is generally a cold character—a calculated killer who avoids genuine relationships with the women he chooses to bed. But a series of first-person accounts of Michael’s childhood generate sympathy and showcase Benacre’s knack for description. “A Picture to Keep” is a standout: 4-year-old Michael explores a bomb’s devastating aftermath, frantically searching for his mother and siblings; its simple passages (“I was bleeding from somewhere, from everywhere it seemed”) offer dynamic, harrowing imagery. The book’s historical backdrop, too, is first-rate; Michael’s life, for example, is affected by the ongoing Troubles, the war in Afghanistan, and even 9/11, ultimately leading to the Provisional IRA’s disarmament and Frank’s forming a resurgent version of the terrorist group. A later story, “Morning Tea,” zeroes in on Patricia Whelan, another Cleanskin, who will hopefully have a collection (or novel) of her own.
This book’s strong, sometimes-insightful focus on its protagonist makes it a definite improvement on the author’s prior outing.
In Chadwick’s (High Seas to Home, 2012) historical novel, an escaped slave girl and a former Confederate general meet in 1863 Liverpool.
This modified epistolary novel alternates between two first-person documents: “Experiences in the Life of a Slave Girl by Trinity Giddings” and “Recollections of a Confederate General by Jubal de Brooke.” Trinity is a 24-year-old slave in Charleston, South Carolina. With her family dead and her master’s unwanted sexual attentions becoming hard to avoid, she seizes a chance to escape using a fake pass and a mariner’s uniform. Trinity’s voice is distinctive, and her syntax and folksy vocabulary suit her time and station: “Short time later, this child was spying for President Lincoln. Yes I was!” she exults. She provides the novel’s life and soul, much like the character Handful in Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 book The Invention of Wings. She sails to London and meets the American minister to Britain, and she takes the moral argument against slavery to Liverpool, “the most formidable Confederate bastion outside Dixie.” Jubal de Brooke, an unpopular man in the Confederate army due to his vocal opposition to slavery, has been sent to that city to use his dubious family connections to solicit financial help for the wartime cause. Meanwhile, he tries to overcome his debilitating battle flashbacks. Trinity soon learns that the British are building an ironclad warship for the Confederacy, and she becomes embroiled in a scheme to steal the plans and take them to the U.S. consulate. Jubal is romantically involved with a shipbuilding heiress but also drawn to Trinity; meanwhile, he hopes that the Grand Liberty Bazaar, a fundraiser for the Southern Prisoners’ Relief Fund, is a success—as his family name depends on it. Along with the two well-drawn narrators, the novel boasts several wonderful secondary characters, including Lord Harrowby, “Britain’s oldest dandy”; States Rights Rankin, a villainous Southern senator; and Josiah Mill, a black apothecary. Shades of Charles Dickens’ work, meanwhile, appear in the novel’s descriptions (“Chilly October day. Liverpool drab-grey below an endless wash of overcast”), its twisty plot, and its quirky character names (such as “Cuthbert Longinch” and “Lazarus Hotchkiss”).
This offbeat, refreshingly absorbing Civil War novel features impeccable research and well-realized main characters.
Fitzjerrell’s (The Dividing Season, 2012) engaging tale depicts a Texas town during the Great Depression.
Mike Lemay was recently hired by the Federal Writers Project to interview and write about the people suffering in this hard time. He himself feels guilty for leaving his surviving family in North Carolina, but he needs whatever work he can get so he can send money home. He winds up in Cooperville, Texas, and immediately confronts the mysterious disappearance of the town eccentric and loner, Effie Beck. After renting quarters with the Travises—widowed Cora Mae and daughter Jodean—Mike is quickly drawn in. Cora Mae, with her chronic headaches, is a classic manipulator, and everyone seems to see Jodean as a good daughter but damaged goods. Why? And does that somehow involve Effie Beck? Such questions form the backbone of the novel as Mike and Jodean fall in love slowly, warily, predictably. Groups and minor characters pop in throughout the story. Though the town is suspicious of any outsiders, a crew from the Works Progress Administration is building a bridge over the Medina River—a bridge that, at book’s climax, might be washed away. The menacing sheriff and his beautiful wife (aka the richest couple in town) contribute a subplot, and the historically factual “orphan train” plays a major role. The story is as much about Mike’s coming to terms with himself and his disgust at the Depression and his situation as it is about his solving the mystery of Effie Beck. Fitzjerrell packs a lot in, and her pacing is impressive. Characters are real and detailed, and the town feels like a real place, not a stage. Small wonder that the book already won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion.
Stellar fiction about hard living during the Depression.
Korea serves as a perfect crucible for Kim’s expansive and impressive historical fiction debut, in which the characters must struggle against overwhelming odds.
As a boy, Kim Young Nam lives on a small farm in Korea with his family, but they are not spared the rigors and privations that result from the Japanese occupation. Even a staple like rice is a luxury, and fish from the nearby river is in scarce supply. The Christian Kim family is banned from practicing their faith freely. Instead, they must abide by the principles of Shinto, the Japanese state-sanctioned religion. Young Nam hopes he’ll find his salvation in education, that he will somehow realize his yangban (scholar) ancestry and find a way out of the misery. In a country full of survivors, Nam’s is not the only exceptional tale. In another narrative, 12-year-old Lee Hana works as a “comfort woman” in the Korean Women’s Voluntary Service Corp. Hana’s life will intersect Nam’s. The novel begins with a Korean proverb that describes them both: “Fall seven times, get up eight.” Although Kim’s prose is sometimes stilted, her vision is powerfully executed, taking readers through all the important landmarks of 20th-century Korean history, including the end of Japanese occupation and the division of Korea. The horrors of war pervade the novel, making one occasionally wish for a little break in the bleakness. Nevertheless, humanity’s many joys also manage to slip through the darkness. “When a tiger dies, he leaves a pelt; when a man dies, he leaves his name,” Kim writes. In a sense, this is a story of rebirth as much as it of survival.
Unfolding against a sprawling canvas, an absorbing tale of characters shedding their identities and reinventing themselves, despite being battered by war.
Class and cultural rifts in booming Singapore tear apart families and lovers in Lim’s (Fistful of Colors, 2003) affecting, lushly textured historical novel.
Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s isn’t yet a glittering metropolis—instead, it’s a warren of squatters’ shacks and crowded alleys, where young Wong Ping-ping struggles to survive. Her mother, Yoke Lan, a beautiful nightclub singer/courtesan who plays a Chinese instrument called the pipa, left her for Hong Kong to seek her fortune. Ping sleeps in a cage in a rooming house, working in the landlord’s cafe and local markets to earn money for school books. Her boon companion is Weng, the son of a poor family, who dreams of being a flautist; his father, a river worker, is also a pipa virtuoso who takes Ping on as a student. They lead a threadbare but rich existence in the multiracial bustle of Singapore’s Chinatown and along the colorful, decrepit banks of the city’s river. But then Yoke Lan returns with a rich husband, and Ping moves to their grand house, posing as a distant relative to hide her mother’s disreputable past. Ping’s new life is wonderfully advantaged but loveless and tense; meanwhile, her deepening involvement with Weng becomes complicated by their starkly diverging fortunes. Her stepfather’s business moves to evict Weng’s neighborhood from a riverfront where land values are skyrocketing along with Singapore’s economy. Fate carries Ping to America, and after decades, she returns to take stock of her fraught relationships with Yoke Lan and Weng. Singaporean novelist Lim paints an evocative, atmospheric portrait of old Singapore and its vigorous, sometimes-brutal transition to modernity. She shows readers deeply rooted communities bulldozed to make way for grandiose developments; populist movements pitted against brusque bureaucracies and police strong-arming; and traditional cultures crumbling before a new ethos of on-the-make capitalism and technocratic expertise. Her well-drawn characters bear the scars of this history—Yoke Lan, for example, is a bundle of brittle social ambitions and insecurities as she tries to fit in with the elite—yet they retain their vibrant individuality as they struggle to keep their feet amid the upheaval. Lim tells their story in prose that’s subtle, cleareyed and lyrical, linking a city’s rise with the emotional travails of its inhabitants.
A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.
A debut coming-of-age novel set in a monastery in medieval England.
In Peak’s understated but entirely spellbinding debut novel, Winwaed’s warrior father, Ceolwulf, gives him as an offering, or oblate, to the monastery at Redestone, near the border between two warring kingdoms in seventh-century Northumbria. The novel’s central structure is that of a fairly standard bildungsroman, in which young Winwaed must learn the ways and rituals of the monastery, navigate the personalities of the various monks who have control over his life, and grapple with the inner struggles of a spiritual life. It also addresses the broader realities beyond the abbey’s fields, where war and plague stalk the land and where Christianity, newly come to the country, rests uneasily alongside native pagan beliefs that have held sway for millennia. With a sure hand and a formidable amount of research, Peak brings to life the day-to-day realities of the monastery, its food and drink, its dress, and its duties tied to the seasons. But Peak’s strongest suit is people, and his characters are unfailingly well-realized; for example, a protracted scene in which Ceolwulf and Winwaed have their first conversation is a masterpiece of insight. The novel is told entirely from a much older Winwaed’s point of view, and although this has the expected effect of sapping the action, Peak captures his characters’ inner dimensions so well that it more than compensates. In one beautiful little moment, for example, Winwaed looks out his window and sees an empty space where a cherry tree stood during his boyhood: “They don’t live long, do they, the fruiting trees?” he says. In his acknowledgments, the author thanks “first and foremost” the famed monk known as the Venerable Bede in a gesture that’s guaranteed to endear him to medievalists. Fans of the quieter moments in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels, not to mention aficionados of Bede, will find a great deal to like in these pages.
A vividly realized story of one boy’s attempt to live a life of faith in a time of war.
Scharrer offers a riveting fictionalized biography of her great-aunt Flora Shaw, one of the first successful female journalists.
In the late 19th century, men dominated the world of journalism, and it was almost unheard-of for a woman to report from the field. Pioneering reporter Shaw, however, turned this world on its head by using her intelligence, wit, charm and bravery. Debut author Scharrer creatively reimagines Shaw’s trailblazing life by piecing together her biography and embellishing it with scintillating conversation and rich, vivid description. Shaw first made her mark as an author of children’s books, and this work carefully spells out her influences prior to her break into journalism. Early on, for example, she meets writer and social theorist John Ruskin, one of many thinkers who shaped her ideas on life. Yet, as she establishes herself, her own distinct philosophiesbecome quite clear. This book isn’t just about a writer coming of age, but also about her many breathtaking achievements. At first, the budding journalist was forced to write under the name of “F. Shaw,” as revealing her gender would have damaged her credibility with many London Times readers. She eventually used her full name in her byline, however, and she rose to become the newspaper’s “Colonial Editor” and one of the greatest (and highest-paid) female journalists of her time. Scharrer also observes that Shaw was involveddirectly in the Jameson Raid, a botched assault on the South African Republic of Transvaal led by the British statesman Leander Starr Jameson. The author expertly sets this scene: “Jameson sighed as he nervously slapped at the flies buzzing around him in his tent.” Readers will feel as though they’re getting a privileged, candid view of Jameson, and they’ll sense the tension and the heat of the landscape, as if they’ve been transported directly there. Scharrer’s prose is always sharp, elegant and controlled, much like the era it portrays. From the outset, it’s clear that this work is a carefully researched labor of love, and it dutifully fulfills the vital task of remembering a pioneer in women’s letters.
With eloquent accuracy, Spilman’s novel captures the life of a 19th-century sailor.
Bill Doerflinger is a young archivist wishing to record old sea shanties sung by a few aging sea captains and their mates. In October 1938, he travels to the Staten Island home of 85-year-old Capt. George “Georgie” Anderson, who recounts a fantastical tale. In 1870, at age 17, he sailed from New York to Australia and back in the medium clipper Alhambra. The journey begins under the command of Capt. Josiah Adams, who leads a motley crew of complex characters. The most fascinating of the common seamen is an enigmatic drunk named Jack Barlow. When Capt. Adams falls ill and dies, the ship faces all manner of turmoil, from rumblings of mutiny to the terrifying roar of a hurricane. As tensions on board increase, Barlow proves far more astute than he first appears. Meanwhile, the naïve Georgie is beginning to find his “sea legs” with the help and hindrance of his crew. The novel carefully charts the young man’s intellectual and moral development. His initial sense of awe, along with the precarious nature of life at sea, is captured with an effortless grace: “When the sun was shining, the endless progression of the Southern Ocean graybeards was breathtaking—rolling mountainous peaks, thirty and forty feet high and long, with low valleys between. The wave tops were ten feet of boiling foam while the waves themselves were mighty beasts seemingly ready to devour us, just about to overwhelm the ship, until the fine lady Alhambra lifted her skirts and rose up.” A profound understanding of nautical terminology and procedure is also evident, yet the author is careful not to confuse readers who don’t know a “crojack” from a “spanker.” Eager to educate, the book also contains a comprehensive glossary, a rigging diagram, and an essay on the history of the sea shanty. Spilman’s colorful, well-researched novel will enthrall both sailing enthusiasts and landlubbers.
In his debut play, Wheatley (A Song of Africa, 2011) illuminates the life of an African-American poet and explores both colonists’ and slaves’ desires for liberty.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), born in West Africa, was captured by slavers in 1761 and sold to Boston’s John Wheatley. The Wheatley family didn’t treat her like an ordinary slave, instead giving her an unprecedented classical education in literature; she eventually became America’s first published black poet. The playwright, who may himself be descended from the Boston family he portrays, zeroes in on the events of Nov. 4 and 5, 1772, when Phillis stood trial to prove her authorship of her poems. The first act shows the Wheatleys preparing for trial, with Phillis rehearsing lines and John and his son, Nathaniel, discussing issues such as abolition and taxation. Nathaniel is a patriot—“How can we ignore tyranny?” he demands—but John is a Loyalist. With these characters, the author offers a perfect, miniature illustration of the Colonial debates over British rule and slavery’s continuation. Meanwhile, his portrayal of Phillis comes across as simultaneously humble and erudite, as she references Shakespeare, John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Milton and Christopher Marlowe. Act 2 re-creates the trial, using characters’ actual words wherever possible. Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, the defense lawyer, frames the case idealistically: “I thought today we could perhaps take a step toward reconciliation.…The common ground I speak of lies in art, and poetry.” The prosecution asks Phillis to identify some verses and list her influences; it’s particularly interested in her metaphorical use of the word “Americus” and the phrase “fair freedom” and in whether she harbors a political agenda. Phillis admits that her position in life influences her writing but insists she was only describing the colonists’ plight. “I am what I am. I cannot be what I perceive others may want me to be,” she passionately declares. The trial’s result provides the play with a heartwarming, triumphant conclusion. The work’s prefatory materials and stage directions can seem long-winded at times, but this is a relatively minor drawback. Overall, the historical figures come to vibrant life in the author’s illustration of the primacy of freedom: “Today we have been reminded by a slave girl how precious is our liberty,” Founding Father John Hancock declares at one point.
Classic American history theater for readers who are weary of The Crucible and Inherit the Wind.
In this first volume of a planned trilogy, a Southern businesswoman puts her ships to use as privateer blockade runners in the early days of the American Civil War.
In early 1861, Joanna Davis runs Davis & Grey, a successful trading company in Richmond, Virginia. Her main partner is her younger cousin, Trent Grey, but they’ve lately taken on an additional, limited partner, Robert Hamilton—a black Bahamian who was educated in England and has experience as a merchant-ship captain. Though she’s no abolitionist, Davis is a no-nonsense capitalist who “disliked economic inefficiency more than she disliked black people.” Trent, meanwhile, is anti-slavery but pro–states’ rights. In April, when rebels shell Fort Sumter, it’s clear that war is imminent, but the South has no navy. The Confederate government says that it will issue letters of marque for privateers to attack Yankee shipping. Trent convinces Davis to convert one of their two paddle-wheelers into a privateer—not for glory but for profit. Trent has spent time at sea, but he still has much to learn. His first effort is lucky, and he bags a prize; his second is less fortunate, as he loses his ship and his crew—and nearly his life. After he recovers from his injuries, he tries again, this time under Hamilton’s tutelage. His success on this voyage sets the stage for an expansion of their efforts, and for the next volume in the series. Debut author Wonnell has produced a wonderfully compelling story about a seldom-seen aspect of the Civil War: its naval battles. His research is impeccable and his characters, distinct and well-drawn. The scenes are marvels of historical detail (“These, he deduced, were smaller-gauge weapons, perhaps portable field artillery pieces of the kind they called Napoleons”) and period-true dialogue.But this is not a run-of-the-mill Civil War yarn; as the South creates a navy out of nothing, the effort is saturated with intrigue. Hidden motives and political machinations surface and submerge as various characters jostle for position. This is historical fiction at its best—a first-rate tale that wonderfully captures an era and its people.
A superb historical novel that’s not just for Civil War buffs.