Thoughts on Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

I have to admit, I am hung up on  Cecilia Ekbäcks Wolf Winter. It’s well written and engaging, but my goodness, the violent (yet necessary) detail is tough for me to stomach. Truth be told, I have not read much Noir- and never Nordic Noir, which seems so popular today.

The atmosphere is bleak and stark like the frozen ground on which the story is set. The wolfwriting is sparse and crisp, beautifully descriptive through both actions and words–reminding me a little of Julie Rose’s Oleanna in that way. It’s those gory details that I don’t think I can continue with, due to my sensitive nature I suppose. I am almost halfway through the book, and I FEEL the mental pain emanating from the characters’ hearts, which is actually the sign of an excellent novel.  It is potent, disturbing, and definitely off the beaten path. A story of a Finnish family trying to survive the wilderness of Sweden’s Lapland in the early 18th century- I’m not sure how much more off-the-path you can get!

Please bear in mind that I’ve only read 175 pages of this 375 pg book. I cannot fully and authoritatively comment on it. This is not a review, this is a personal opinion and explanation. If I had a stronger tolerance for the disturbing detail, I would have continued on. I guess I should stay away from Nordic Noir thrillers in the future…

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, Weinstein Publishing, forthcoming 1/2015, 376 pp, $26.00, hb, 9781602862524

Note: The cover image is from the  2014 UK publication of the novel.

Historical Fiction Challenge 2014 update

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1) Escape from Paris by Caroline Hart

2) The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott.

3) Bellagrand by Paulina Simons

4) Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda

5) The Tiger Queens by Stephanie Thornton

6) A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

7) Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

8) currently reading Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck for blog review

9) Then Damascena by Holly Lynn Payne for blog review

10) For HNS review, White Gardenia by Belinda Alexandra

By December, I should be a RENAISSANCE READER! Yay! Perhaps, if I push myself even more, I could make it to MEDIEVAL by the end of the year…

Interview with Kamila Shamsie about her works of historical fiction

images5I am grateful for the invitation to write an article for the HNR about Kamila Shamsie’s historical fiction with the 2014 publication of A God in Every Stone. I read both A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows as part of my research and was astounded at how this author tackles so many hot-button topics in her novels. From the relations between subjects and Empire during the Raj in India to the WW2 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, to the Partition and formation of Pakistan and a inside look at the Afghan mujahedin  (opposition groups who initially rebelled against the government of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan  (DRA) during the late 1970s, and fought the DRA and the Soviet forces during the Soviet War in Afghanistan), even to a glimpse at modern-day terrorism. Not only does she tackle historical periods and events but also social topics like feminism, morality,  cultural divisions, and everything in between.

I was fortunate to conduct an e-mail interview with Ms. Shamsie, which helped inform my article. Much of the interview could not be covered in the piece and has some interesting information for fans of the author, so here it is, in its entirety from September 29,  2014:

BECAUSE THE AUTHORS BOOKS SEEM TO RANGE BETWEEN LITERARY FICTION AND TRADE FICTION, I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT HER THOUGHTS ON HER BOOKS IN THIS SENSE

1) Who are your literary influences?

It’s such a hard thing to pin down–much more easy to talk about literary loves. I love Virginia Woolf, but I don’t know that I can claim to be influenced by her, for example. So let me pick a few loves and readers of my work can decide if there’s influence there. Earliest loves – Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh. University-era loves: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino. More recent loves: Ali Smith, David Mitchell. I tend not to let go of old loves; just add more onto them as time moves on.

2) Do you consider your books to be literary fiction or more trade-focused? Do different novels fall into different categories?

I always cringe a little at the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to imply all other books lack literariness – or that you can either be literary or commercial (which is just insulting to readers.) Having said that, the books I read fall within the category referred to as literary fiction, and I suppose I write into that area where I read.

HERE, I WAS TRYING TO GET AT THE ESSENCE OF WHO SHE FEELS SHE IS WRITING FOR, WHAT KIND OF AUDIENCE SHE TARGETED WHEN SHE CAME UP WITH HER CONCEPTS.

3) What audience are you aiming for with your books?

Honestly? Anyone who’ll read them.

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4) Your novels have been described as international historical epics- how would you describe them?

Generally if someone asks me to describe my book I turn to the nearest friend or relative and say, ‘please describe my books for me.’ I suppose if I had to I’d talk about them as novels which look at what it means to live individual lives entwined with history – how to reconcile the awfulness of the world with the joy of it; how to love, how to be loyal.

THIS WAS THE MOST FASCINATING RESPONSE OUT OF ALL THE QUESTIONS, FOR ME AT LEAST, IN LIGHT OF THE POLITICAL NATURE OF HER WORK…

images35) How is your work received in different parts of the world? Different reception in the UK, in India, in Muslim countries? Have any of your books caused controversy?

I don’t really recognise ‘Muslim countries’ as a category. All my books are connected to Pakistan, which is where I’m from, so of course my work is going to speak far more directly to people there than in, say, Indonesia or Iran. No major controversy that I’m aware of – though in Pakistan, there were quite a few people raising eyebrows when my novel Salt and Saffron depicted a relationship between people of different classes (that caused more of a stir than anything I’ve ever written about politics or religion). But yes, different countries have different responses based on their own histories and anxieties. With A God In Every Stone the UK responses were very much centred on the figure of the Englishwoman in the novel and the First World War, while in both India and Pakistan the Pathan/Pashtun figures got more attention as did the colonial aspect of the book. With my previous novel Burnt Shadows journalists in Denmark and Norway asked a great many questions about my thoughts on migrants – very much tied to Scandinavia’s very recent history of having to contend with having a migrant population.

THE REST OF THE QUESTIONS ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE TWO HISTORICAL NOVELS.

6) How did you choose the settings and time periods for these two books?

There’s nothing particularly ordered about my writing process. With Burnt Shadows I thought I was going to write a book set in Karachi during the summer of 1998 when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs, but that lead me to think about the use of atom bombs in Japan in 1945 – and next thing I knew I had a novel starting in Nagasaki; researching Nagasaki 1945 made me think of parallels with post 9/11 New York – so the entire geographical trajectory of the novel changed. With A God in Every Stone I was interested in exploring the city of Peshawar and thought that, as with Burnt Shadows, I would write a multi-part novel that would come up to the present day – but after writing my way from 1915 to 1981 and beginning to imagine sections in the 90’s and 2009, I discovered that actually it was the early 20th century story I was interested in, so I cut out everything later and concentrated on 1915 and 1930. And those stories lead me from Peshawar to the Eastern and Western front of the First World War.   Somehow it all comes together in the end, but it’s a terrifyingly haphazard process.

index7) Where did the archeological historical theme running through Gods in Every Stone originate?

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history – and the city of Peshawar is so rich in material along those lines for a novelist. It’s a city that’s been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years – it was part of the Persian empire (Herodotus writes about it); Alexander and his armies came through there; later it became one of the great centres of Buddhism; and it’s home to the extraordinary syncretic Gandhara art which shows all these influences – you have statuary of Buddha being supported on the shoulders of Atlas and other such wonderful images. Hard not to be drawn to that as a writer. One of the first things I knew about the novel was that it would have archaeologists and an ancient artifact that everyone was looking for (perhaps my childhood love for Indiana Jones coming through there…)

images47) Burnt Shadows: Interesting evolution between a bomb survivor of Nagasaki leading to a young man choosing his allegiance in the war in Afghanistan- how in the world did you get from one place to the next? Can you talk about your thought process?

If you look closely enough at history, it’s all so interlinked. Pakistan’s history is the most obvious link between those stories – nuclear bombs and Afghan wars are both so much a part of the country’s recent history that I don’t really see it as much of a jump to get from one to the other. I suppose another way of saying that is, the novel follows its characters, and the characters travel from one link in history to another. What I mean is, I didn’t start off thinking I would go from Nagasaki to Afghanistan and New York but I allowed the characters to follow their trajectory through history. (I would argue, though, that the young man is never unclear about his allegiances – it’s the people around him who doubt where his loyalties lie)

8) One of the major themes threads through both books is the English-Indian relationship, and you write about the overarching themes in this relationship. What is empire to its subjects? Was colonialism enlightenment or slavery (being treated as second class citizens)? What are your thoughts about this issue?

Colonialism was a system of economic exploitation which justified itself on the basis of racist ideas about the superiority of the ‘civilised’ English over the ‘uncivilised’ Indians. Hard to see that as enlightenment. But as a novelist what I’m most interested in is how the inequality of historical positions gets in the way of relationships between people of different nations who do have a certain degree of affinity for each other. And of course there are other complications – if you’re an Englishwoman in Imperial India, as is the case with Viv Spencer in A God in Every Stone, there’s a complex interplay of patriarchy and imperialism going on.

9) We have seen in the news since America got involved in Pakistan much about the Pathan culture- did you write this book with current events in mind? If so, how did they influence this story?

As I mentioned, the novel was originally supposed to end in 2009, so yes, I did very much start with current events in mind. All that changed, but I suppose what remained was an impulse to write about the Pathans in a way that goes beyond the crass stereotypes of people who live and die by the gun – in the early 20th century there was a very sophisticated and popular movement of non-violent resistance to colonial rule which I wanted to explore in the novel, while also exploring the very old syncretic traditions of Peshawar.

10) Confusion over cultural identity and loyalty to one’s nation/sect/tribe seem to be overarching themes in both books- are these things you have personally struggled over? Family history? Witnessed? What led to your focus on these themes?

In some odd way, I think I’m interested in it because I haven’t considered it a struggle. It’s been pretty angst-free for me to move between Karachi, London and the East Coast; and within my own Pakistani family there’s a German grandmother, Danish cousins, England-raised mother etc etc. – none of which I’ve ever regarded as problematic or confusing to me personally. But I suppose at a certain point I realised that not everyone has the luxury of feeling simultaneously so fixed and so fluid about their relationship to nations and ethnicities and other such groupings, and that divergence from my own experience became an interesting thing to examine. Though really I’m just guessing here – I have a strange superstition about not really wanting to examine the connections between my life and what I’m interested in writing about. It’s almost as if I think the tap will turn itself off it I try to work out why it’s flowing.

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*Thank you very much to Meghan Walker at Tandem Literary for arranging this interview.

Reading binge complete

I have finished The Tiger Queens, Burnt Shadows, and A God in Every Stone. I need to write up the article by the end of the month and then I will make some comments here.

The HNS review for The Tiger Queens will be out in November, and suffice it to say if you enjoy a classic historical fiction door stopper, a view of the life of a famous warrior from his women’s perspective, you will enjoy this. I did. An absorbing read, with a few quirks that tossed me out of the story for a few moments but were not hard to reconcile.

Upcoming…

Coming soon will be an article I am working on about the epic novels of Kamila Shamsie. She is not as well known in the United States as she has been in Europe, and I’m thrilled to have been asked to write a feature about her unique novels, Burnt Shadows and A God in Every Stone. Although set during different time periods within the twentieth century, these stories revolve around both the big picture political and more personal spheres of the Indian-English relationship, the reality and legacy of the British Raj, and the Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) search for self-identity. I have a lot to say about these novels and I will be interviewing the author as well, so expect a few lengthy posts on these topics (and many more) by the end of September.  

My daughter is actually growing up, leaving me more reading, thinking, and writing time! I never thought it would happen : ) She is a young girl with an appreciation for books already, and I am one proud mommie!

The other novel I’m engrossed in is Stephanie Thornton’s The Tiger Queens, a huge epic of the lives of the women of Genghis Khan. And it is a tome, at nearly 500 pages, but I have not a single regret for offering to review it–the novel is spectacular. This is for the November issue of the HNS magazine as well.

I have also taken it upon myself for October to review an historical novel the likes of which I don’t often see, a topic that has not been overwritten and that many Western readers would most likely consider exotic and off-the-beaten path: Holly Lyn Payne’s Damascena: The Tale of Roses and Rumi. Set in thirteenth-century Persia, Damascena follows the life story of the living saint Damascena, whose relationship with the famed poet Rumi forever changes her life. The novel has been receiving glowing and heartfelt reviews so far.

 

Review of Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda

revolution-baby-joanna-gruda-128x200Julek is literally a child of the Revolution. After the Polish Communist Party decides in 1929 that Comrade Helena Rappaport may indeed carry her baby to term, but not raise him, Julek begins his journey from family to family, relatives to strangers, boarding school to summer camp, Poland to France to the USSR and back, all the while telling his story with humor, irony, and wry honesty. He grows up with different sets of parents, lives his formative elementary school years in a Communist orphanage in France, where he pulls pranks and gets into scrapes like any eager young school boy. When he is called back to be with his mother in Paris during the German occupation, he adds the job “secret agent to the Resistance” to his already long and varied resume.

Not a sad tale at all, Julek’s story (based on a true story of the author’s father) is a lesson in resilience and optimism. Armed with biting—but never painful—sarcasm and the ability to see the humor in most things, he makes his way gracefully though both his unstable life and this volatile period in the 20th century, allowing the observer to view events with his childish innocence, even while that innocence is being swept away.

Revolution Baby was obviously written with a passion that can only come from a personal connection to the story. The language in this wonderful piece of literary fiction (in its translation at least) hits the mark: clear and descriptive, never too wordy, dry, or dull. If you are seeking a page-turning summer read, I can’t say this is for you, as there is much to digest between the sentences. It is best taken slowly, savoring the innuendos and subtle political barbs along with Julek’s extraordinary adventures. Recommended.

From the HNS November issue. Revolution Baby, by ,

Historical Fiction Daily-for anyone obsessed with the genre

A daily online newspaper of all the historical fiction news, compiled by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society (in other words, our guru!) can be found at http://paper.li/histnovel/1311169881. It’s basically a time-saver. News comes first to Twitter, but you’d have to follow a huge number of accounts and watch them pretty constantly to keep up to date. Instead, our news spotters do this for you, and all you need to do is click on the link. (from the HNS website)

I’d like to embed this paper into the main page of my blog, but how in the world to do that is beyond me. I’ll keep trying to figure it out.

Review of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

ice creamI don’t generally use the term “riveting” in my reviews, as it has become so common amongst reviewers that it has turned cliche. However, I am at a loss to find another word that describes precisely how absorbed I’ve been in this novel over the weekend. When I steal every moment for a quick fix, forget where I am while the page is open, and take the book in the bath, for crying out loud- well, that’s the definition of riveting.

Our heroine, the brash, sarcastic, and rather unscrupulous Malka Treynovsky, flees the pogroms of Russia for a new life with her family in the heart of immigrant New York in 1913. Life in the golden land is not what her family expects, and soon Malka ends up orphaned, disabled, and nearly thrown into an institution. The same Italian ices peddler who disabled her also takes her in, but Italian family life is no easier than Jewish tenement life on Orchard Street, and Malka, renamed Lilian, survives by adaptation, observation, and pure gumption. Despite betrayal and manipulation and hardship, Lilian marries Albert Dunkle, a stunningly handsome yet illiterate friend of the family, and together they create the Dunkle Ice Cream Company. The consequences of Lillian’s choices and the effects of the instability of her childhood shape who she later becomes: “The Ice Cream Queen of America”–the maven of delectable deliciousness, pioneer of industry innovations and creations, with a grandmotherly television persona. Behind the mask, however, the fame, the riches, the manipulations, and paranoia from the past eventually cause her world to founder….

This novel is many things. It is a character study of self-destructiveness; an examination of the rags-to-riches personality; and a story of the early 20th-century immigrant experience in America. It is a social commentary on the evolution of American consumer and pop culture. It exposes the cynicism behind ruthless marketing campaigns, and the cutthroat competition even in such a “happy” field as ice cream production or children’s television.

Lillian Dunkle’s voice is loud and brash–one can hear the full-blown New York accent in her words. She addresses us personally, not afraid to throw her harsh realities and judgements directly in our faces. “So sue me” is her favorite phrase and becomes her catch word throughout the book, defending actions that she KNOWS were not proper, yet believing in her right to do them anyway. I didn’t know how to feel about Lilian: her circumstances were horrifying, her trust in family had been shattered, and yet…in some ways she was a victim of her own making. A complex character, she is.

Gilmans’s writing is superb–not for one moment did I, the reader, feel alienated from a scene or tossed out of time and place. Each settling was utterly absorbing (and at times made me squirm in discomfort). The novel spans 70 years, from 1913 to the Second World War all the way through the 1980s, and it is clear the author has done her research because of the subtle integration of historical elements into the flow of the narrative.

I came across The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street while at Book Expo America this year, searching through the list of historical fiction on offer. I stood in the signing line for at least 45 minutes, but everyone was good-natured and excited, and when I got closer to the front I discovered why: true to the theme of the book, the marketing campaign for Gilman’s novel was grand! Each person was given a huge Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar (choice of three flavors offered by a woman in a 1950s candy-striped smock!)  to enjoy while we waited for our 30 seconds of discourse with the author and a signed hardback copy.  When you read the book, you’ll understand the significance of that gesture. I thought the marketing was brilliant….especially after being on my feet for 8 hours in a crowded convention hall!

The copy I have just reviewed is the signed hardback from BEA. I am reviewing it of my own volition, with no urging from author, publisher, etc.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman, Grand Central, hb, $26, 505pp, ISBN: 978-0-446-57893-6

Pondering Italy today…

I’ve traveled to many places in Europe but Italy, sadly, had never been on my agenda; I’ve just never gotten that far south. My domain has been Scandinavia and northern Europe, but as I’m starting to be exposed to new ideas and fresh faces, new places happily follow.

A plethora of historical fiction is set in Italy, and from my research, most of it comprises three fascinating periods in Italian history: ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the world wars. I am drawn to the following picks because of the added human dimension to historical events and personages, like the destruction of Pompeii, various Roman emperors, the incredible amount of artistic talent unleashed in such a small country, later tales of royalty and decadence, and the civilization and climate of various areas of the country.  Historical fiction is my mode of learning about history and culture, and if I were to plan a visit to Italy, I would busily prepare myself by reading theses highly recommended adventures through time and place:

first manThe First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough: A towering saga of great events and mortal frailties, it is peopled with a vast, and vivid cast of unforgettable men and women — soldiers and senators, mistresses and wives, kings and commoners — combined in a richly embroidered human tapestry to bring a remarkable era to bold and breathtaking life. (Goodreads)

iclaudius

I, Claudius by Robert Graves Historical novel set in 1st-century-AD Rome, published in 1934. The book is written as an autobiographical memoir by Roman emperor Claudius. Physically weak, afflicted with stammering, and inclined to drool, Claudius is an embarrassment to his family and is shunted to the background of imperial affairs. The benefits of his seeming ineffectuality are twofold: he becomes a scholar and historian, and he is spared the worst cruelties inflicted on the imperial family by its own members during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. (Goodreads) The television series is fantastic, too. 

venusPompeii by Robert Harris set in the ancient doomed city, tells of a young man’s rescue attempt.(Goodreads)

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone: Fictional depictionagony of Michelangelo (Goodreads), with insights into the Medici family and the culture of Italy. (Goodreads)

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant: turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. (Goodreads)

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner:  An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. The parts dealing with her childhood are set in Italy; the rest in France. (Goodreads)

leoThe Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa: A sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s tumultuous portrait of royal life in Sicily during Italy’s unification and transition was originally rejected by publishing houses roomand finally released in 1958, after his death. It’s now considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature. (Goodreads)

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster: E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel offers a glimpse of mysterious and romantic 19th-century Italy. (Goodreads)

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For history buffs, I have recently been made aware of an app designed especially for families traveling to Italy (by an awesome father-son team ), designed to teach history while having a good time. The website is Gumshoe Tours http://www.gumshoetours.com/home.html, b7c712e254ac4edf779c1b64acdcb5fcand the creators have completed tours of both Rome and Assisi, with hopefully more to come. There is also an attached “Life in Italy” blog by one of the  creators, an American who has lived in the country for some time.

So read and play, and tell me all about it when you return!

Review of Paullina Simon’s Bellagrand

Bellagrand is indeed BELLA GRAND!!! This book came straight from the author’s heart. Readers will understand the less-than-stellar lead up to this heartbreaker now…

bella2

 

BELLAGRAND

Paullina Simons has returned in fine form! The love story of Alexander’s parents is continued from Children of Liberty, and is the prequel to the stunning Bronze Horseman. Nothing I could write can describe this gem of a book better than the author’s poignant words: “[This book is about] Gina, a passionate, strong, good woman, who wants nothing more than to love and to be loved. The book is about all the things that stand in her way. In this story, you will also meet Alexander, and you will witness the love that had made him and in the end that saved him, the love that offered him, years hence, the possibility of a new life. It was all borne out of Bellagrand, out of the lifelong love affair between Gina and Harry, Alexander’s mother and father.” (from author’s website)

Gina and Harry’s journey spans four decades and two continents, from the troubled industrial immigrant town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to the blue-blood society of Boston, to South Florida where the dream of perfection is found and lost, to a new life in a dangerous, foreign land.

Bellagrand is an epic journey, a suitable prequel to the momumental love story of Alexander and Tatiana. Simons wraps up all the plot threads cleanly, but not before wringing your heart and dragging you through an emotional roller coaster ride. Bellagrand is a poignant and mature exploration of marriage and commitment, of sacrifice and consequences. It is a dark tale with rays of light that will touch you.

(from my review for The Historical Novels Review)

Paullina Simons, William Morrow, 2014, 576 pp, 9780062103239, paperback Continue reading

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