The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a little gift planted in her by a college professor who groomed her, screwed her in the upstairs lounge at school, and then dumped her so he could move on to the next nubile young lady in her class. It’s a time in history when becoming a single mother was an absolute taboo for any Caucasian woman of the middle class. Perhaps you had to be there, but I am telling you it was simply unthinkable. Not only would she have lost friends; her entire family would have lost friends, and maybe relatives also. The social stain was one that did not wash out.

And while we are talking about the time period—starting in 1960—I need to point out that Myers has nailed, with brilliant yet discreetly woven detail, the settings of the time periods between then and now in a way that’s undeniable and that draws me further into the story. Some authors try to use shortcuts in writing historical fiction, and when they do it you can tell they don’t have a grasp of the period: they toss in the names of popular celebrities, clothing styles, and other prominent bits of pop culture that they could glean from a ten-minute web crawl. Myers does the opposite. She focuses on the story and character, character, character, but the time period comes out in the background, as it should, with every aspect from the slang of the period, to its social mores, to every aspect of daily living. This reviewer grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the story progresses, I find myself thinking, “I remember that!” I highlighted a hundred references that won’t fit into this review just out of sheer admiration.

Those that just want a beach read can get this book and use it as such, but for those that want to peel off the layers and look for what’s underneath, the feminist message is one we can relate to today easily. The assumptions that are made about her as a wife, that she is an appendage, and the way her family treats her speak to me. In some ways, I find myself thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman simply becomes part of the home environment; at one point Phoebe notes that her family doesn’t want to hear her talk, and they don’t even really want to share their own stories with her, but she’s like a lamp that should be present when desired for whatever purpose suits the moment.

In the end, when her husband goes to jail for having stolen every penny from his investors, Phoebe has a choice to make. She can stand by her man, trying to eke out a little stash for his prison account so that he can buy candy bars and stamps, or she can live her life without him. To some it might seem to be an obvious decision, but by the time he is jailed, she is past sixty; she has lived her entire adult life with this man, and the mind of a senior citizen is not as flexible as a younger one. The way she works through it is riveting.

Read it as a feminist folk tale or read it as a beach read; one way or the other, this novel is highly recommended. (less)

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

Happy release day to Andrew Krivak! This one is head and shoulders above the rest. If you are ready to get lost in a book, it’s for sale now.

Seattle Book Mama

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and…

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No Resting Place, by William Humphrey*****

norestingplace I was drawn to this story because I had read William Humphrey’s Home from the Hill, brilliant Southern fiction that was a contender for the National Book Award, and I couldn’t imagine letting anything written by this author pass me by. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book will be re-released digitally February 17, 2017.

Humphrey tells this story like no one else. The Trail of Tears is one of the most heinous crimes any government has wrought upon its aboriginal peoples, a shameless land grab that stole all of the lands belonging to Cherokees and several other tribes of the Southeastern USA. It’s a story that has to be told by someone; those that have American Indian roots may have access to oral history, but for Anglos like me, if it isn’t written down, future generations may not know about it. And by telling it as if it were historical fiction, Humphrey is able to add dialogue and make it more accessible. That said, the reader will need to bring strong literacy skills to this novel. Humphrey’s fiction is always hyper-literate, all the more so in this case because he meticulously researched it. It is the last thing he wrote, a genuine labor of love, and it shows.

That said, nobody can make this real-life event a happy one, and nobody should. It’s brutal. I was about a quarter of the way in, reading in tiny bites in order to make the reading more bearable, when I began to regret having committed to reading and reviewing it. In the end, however, I am glad I did read it, because I learned a lot of new things about the various tribes and although Humphrey’s narrative isn’t enjoyable to read because of the subject matter, he does it more eloquently and in more conscientious detail than anyone else that I’ve read. I say this having taught a unit on the Trail of Tears for a number of years; I am not an expert on this part of American history, but I also didn’t come to it without prior knowledge.

It’s a story that will break your heart—and if you already know the basics, it will do so all over again—but it’s also a story everyone should know. Like the Holocaust, it’s a part of history whose recounting must not be permitted to pass from our knowledge. As for me, I read more than one book at a time, and I found this was less likely to leave me feeling depressed if I alternated it with lighter material. It is likely to be of special interest to those of Cherokee descent and also to Texans, whose forefather Sam Houston is featured here.

The writing style may seem peculiar to younger readers because it is written in a formal style not often used anymore, but there is no denying the word-smithery that makes this cruel event come alive on the page.  Highly recommended to those with the literary skills and stamina required to pursue it.

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.

House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel**

houseofsilenceThe premise of this historical romance had me at the get-go: Isabelle Larkin is engaged to marry wealthy, powerful Gregory Gallagher, but she calls it off after she sees him commit murder. Her family doesn’t believe her, and embarrassed, they have her trucked off to a sanitarium, where she meets Mary Todd Lincoln. I thank Net Galley and Kensington Publishing for the invitation to read and review. This book becomes available for purchase December 27, 2016.

Barthel’s story has some nice moments. I love the bit where our protagonist ruminates about the impropriety of unlacing her boots in a place where they might be seen; let no one think her a loose woman!

However, there are also moments when the narrative hiccups in a way that startles me. Ultimately, this happens so frequently that the spell is broken, and instead of being transported to a different time and place in the way one is with strong literature, I am reminded all too often that this is a galley, and it’s one that needs a hands-on editor before it should see daylight.

Every writer of historical fiction has to make a choice. Are we going to use exactly the same forms of language and speech that were common to the time, or are we going to ease up just a little and use the book’s note to the reader to explain that this has been done intentionally for the purpose of creating a more accessible novel?  This of course doesn’t even include the extremely risky, though occasionally very successful choice to move an historical tale to the present setting; modern Romeo and Juliet stories immediately come to mind.

Barthel has chosen to play it straight and use the speech of the time, but every now and then, a phrase or sentence of twenty-first century casual speech flies in and lands mid-chapter, a bit like a flying saucer. Suddenly I see “As if I cared about sex at a time like this”, and “I hope you are all right with that.” There are a lot of these moments inserted into a page here or there of otherwise-Victorian prose, and they keep me from buying into the premise.

I hope that this story will be re-released somewhere up the road, and if so, I would be happy to reread it and possibly recommend it to the reader. It’s a shame to see such an excellent premise spoiled with what is essentially sloppy editing. But in its present form, I can’t recommend it to you.

Best of 2016: Historical Fiction

There weren’t a lot of outstanding historical novels this year, but those that are good are oh, so good. Every single one of these five titles owned me until the story was done; for awhile afterward; and a little bit still.

                          #1 thegirlfromv

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2016/10/19/the-girl-from-venice-by-martin-cruz-smith/

HONORABLE MENTION:

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.