The Historical Novel Society Newsletter

May 19, 2012

Issue 9/2012: 5 May 2012

Editors: Karen Wintle, Gordon O’Sullivan, Heather Laskey, and Meenoo Mishra

Section 1 Welcome
Section 2 Book Reviews Roundup
Section 3 Features

Section 1: Welcome

Welcome to this issue of the Newsletter. We hope you enjoy our book review
summaries and features.

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Section 2: Book Reviews Roundup

Headings give book title, author, journal, date and name of reviewer. Please
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All That I Am by Anna Funder, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Emma Hagestadt
In All That I Am, Funder takes her first step into full-blown fiction, albeit with a story firmly grounded in historical fact. The book concerns a group of German dissidents who fled to London in 1933 in the hope of alerting the world to the dangers of Hitler’s rise. Best known among this set was Ernst Toller, a once-famous, leftwing playwright and the president of the short-lived Bavarian republic.
Funder comes to his story via the auspices of a real-life character, Ruth Wesermann – an elderly German living in Sydney, who in 2001 received a copy of Toller’s memoir, I Was A German, unearthed in the basement of a condemned New York hotel. It emerges that these two long-separated exiles were once intimately connected by their mutual affection for Ruth’s cousin, Dora Fabian, a charismatic feminist and Toller’s one-time lover.

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Almost Never by Daniel Sada

, Washington Post, 10 May 2012, Marie Arana
Demetrio, a young agronomist in Oaxaca — it is 1945, in a vibrant metropolis of Mexico — falls in love with a beautiful and inexhaustibly athletic prostitute by the name of Mireya. He is gleefully enjoying her countless charms, visiting her so often that she has no time for other customers, when his mother writes and insists that Demetrio accompany her to a wedding in the desert town of Coahuila. At the wedding, he meets the virginal Renata, whose beauty is so arresting that he cannot help but propose marriage. Although Renata accepts, she is not so easily won. There is to be no touching, she tells him, and certainly no conjugating. So it’s back to Mireya. And then forth to Renata. And then back, forth, back.

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The Blockade Runners by Jules Verne

, The Observer, 6 May 2012, Philip Womack
Published in 1865, after his more famous works, Verne’s is a tale of love and honour that also manages to concern itself with the abolition of slavery, though with the lightest of touches. It rockets along, aided by Karen Loukes’s clean-limbed translation, as fast as the ship belonging to the dashing and politically suspect (slavery isn’t much of a problem for him) Captain James Playfair, the hero. He’s a Scottish mercantile princeling who’s on his way to make a daring venture for cotton behind southern lines, and hoping to net a sizable profit along the way. His ship is in fact carrying a more complex cargo: Jenny Halliburtt, a girl disguised as a boy, as seems obligatory in seafaring tales. Playfair can only follow his heart and helps the girl in her quest to rescue her imprisoned father from the Confederates.

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Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Diane Purkiss
Until the advent of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, most people saw Thomas Cromwell as a jowly accountant who destroyed sainted Thomas More. Only Geoffrey Elton saw Cromwell as a great man, a moderniser of the state, and his account was of a man who loved the bureaucracy he created. Mantel changed that: she made Cromwell her tolerant, omincompetent hero. In this, her sequel to Wolf Hall, she has no truck with the feminised Tudor history denounced by David Starkey, but sticks firmly to her agenda – male point-of-view, Cromwell’s point-of-view, a political point-of-view, with no lust in the Tudor shrubbery. Her historical fiction might be called the squeezed middlebrow, refusing bodice-ripping bestseller-land, but also rejecting wildly experimental writers of historical fiction like OrhanPamuk. As all historical novelists must, Mantel forces us to recognise ourselves in people whose different minds could easily alienate us. Her Cromwell is practical, as we are, a battler, as we are, with no religion or love of the monarch, because we have none.
In Bring Up The Bodies, we tumble fast into violent absolutism, 21st-century variety. Cromwell’s improbably secularist sensibility is the precursor of a passion for state power. Why would anybody be afraid of change, just because change has placed Cromwell in command? As he becomes director of the terrible, bloody drama of Anne Boleyn’s fall in 1536, we see exactly what there is to fear.

See also:
The Observer, 13 May 2012, Frances Wilson
The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Margaret Atwood
Washington Post, 7 May 2012, Wendy Smith

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Derby Day by D. J. Taylor

, New York Times, 4 May 2012, Christopher Benfey
“Derby Day” is partly set in the dilapidated, rook-haunted estate of Scroop Hall, circa 1870. Scroop is inhabited by a widower named Davenant, his spectral, moon-faced daughter, Evie, and various predatory hangers-on. Nothing is thriving in this melancholy redoubt except a racehorse named Tiberius, of dubious provenance, and even he is under threat after a nighttime attack by person or persons unknown. A clutch of audacious schemers is intrigued by the horse. There is Happerton, a “thrusting” sort of sporting man, in top boots and cutaway coat, who marries money, buys up Davenant’s debts by means legal and not, is in league with a sinister safecracker and eventually ends up in possession of both Scroop Hall and Tiberius, whom he intends to run in the Derby. Whether he intends him to win or to lose remains, like much else in this tantalizing novel, mysterious almost to the end.

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The Family Corleone by Ed Falco

, Washington Post, 6 May 2012, Patrick Anderson
We first saw Vito Corleone in his 60s, in the novel and the first “Godfather” film, and later as a young man in the second film. “The Family Corleone” fills the gap by showing Vito in his early 40s, starting in 1933. Vito’s gang controls gambling, numbers and protection rackets in the Bronx, but he’s far from his destiny as New York’s boss of bosses. His dream is for his sons to become law-abiding citizens. However, Sonny, at 17, is the leader of a gang of teenage hijackers; his father, somewhat improbably, doesn’t know it. Sonny has also begun his career as a prodigious seducer of women. Soon, Vito must accept Sonny’s determination to join the family business, and father and son become partners in a bloody, steadily escalating war among the city’s various crime families. Falco has captured Puzo’s rich prose style and eye for detail, even as he equals or exceeds Puzo’s extravagant violence with scenes of infanticide and decapitation.

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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Simon Mawer

, The Observer, 6 May 2012, Rachel Cooke
Mawer’s new novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (published in the US as Trapeze), is, like its predecessor, set during the second world war, this time in Britain and occupied France. Marian Sutro, a clever, cool-headed and bilingual young woman (her mother is French), has attracted the attention of the Special Operations Executive, and, following a series of oblique interviews in empty hotel rooms, volunteers for training. Taken to a remote hunting lodge in the Highlands – “a curious mix of military camp and university reading group” – she is taught how to send messages in code; to operate on enemy territory; to jump out of an aeroplane; to survive interrogation; and, most important of all, to kill. Marian does not exactly enjoy learning these skills; at times, she seems almost to sleepwalk her way through the course, for all that she is a brilliant student. But when, as it ends, she is told that she will indeed be employed in the field, she feels “a small snatch of emotion, a blend of fear and excitement from which it was impossible to recover either”. Soon after, she is parachuted into south-west France.

See also:
The Guardian, 12 May 2012, Lucasta Miller

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Home by Toni Morrison

, New York Times, 7 May 2012, Michiko Kakutani
“Home” is the story of Frank Money, who joins the Army as a ticket out of stifling Lotus, Ga. — where “there was no future, just long stretches of killing time” — and his return there after his service in the Korean War, on a mission to rescue his younger sister, Cee. It is the story of a man who has witnessed the atrocities of war and the deaths of his two best friends, a man who has terrible flashbacks to the war and savage impulses of his own that he finds difficult to master. He has done a stint in a mental hospital, and nearly kills a man at a train stop on the way back to Georgia. It is only a cry for help from his sister, who has gone to work for a sinister doctor near Atlanta, that rouses him into action.

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I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

, New York Times, 15 May 2012, Susannah Meadows
“I Am Forbidden” centers on two Hasidic sisters: one who leaves, and one who stays, shunning modernity. But the wonder of this elegant, enthralling novel is the beauty Ms. Markovits unearths in the Hasidic community. The involved plot, sweeping across four generations, opens in Transylvania, along the Hungarian-Romanian border, just before World War II. Five years later a family of Jews is shot as its members run for an open box car leaving town. A little girl survives; her name is Mila. Rabbi Zalman Stern takes her in. There she shares a bed with Zalman’s daughter, the 4-year-old Atara. As they grow up, the girls’ closeness remains a refuge. The orphan Mila never chafes against the tight binding of the ancient law enforced by her new father. It is Atara who begins to wonder about life on the outside; soon she’s smuggling nonreligious books under her covers. Atara vanishes for much of the second half of the book. Mila ends up in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in an arranged marriage.

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

, New York Times, 4 May 2012, Sarah Towers
Grace Winter, twenty-two years old and clearly very attractive, narrates “The Lifeboat” with panache — and a good dose of unreliability — insisting she lives by the principle “God helps those who help themselves.” When the ocean liner transporting Grace and her (very rich) new husband to the United States on the eve of World War I suffers a catastrophic explosion, she wedges herself into Lifeboat 14, along with 38 others. There she staves off the mounting hysteria around her and aligns herself with John Hardie, an experienced sailor who takes control of the food and water and makes instantaneous, God-like decisions. As Grace and her fellow castaways soon discover, they are perilously overcrowded. For any to survive, a few must volunteer to go over the side. Framed by scenes of Grace after the ordeal — she has been charged, along with two other survivors, with the murder of one of their companions — the bulk of the novel traps us in the disintegrating world of the lifeboat, buffeted by squalls and by a brewing power struggle between the darkly appealing Mr. Hardie and an unflappable older woman named Mrs. Grant.

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Miss Fuller by April Bernard

, Washington Post, 4 May 2012, Carolyn See
Our founding fathers and mothers of American literature mostly made their home in Concord, Mass., during the middle of the 19th century. April Bernard captures them in all their quirky, inspiring and difficult ways. Hawthorne’s “Blithedale Romance,” featured a pretentious femme fatale named Zenobia, who showed her commitment to untainted rural life by wearing an exotic flower in her hair. Hawthorne killed that character off, partly because she claimed she could think. Zenobia was based on a real woman, Margaret Fuller, who spoke several languages and dared to hold “conversations” in which she proposed to educate young ladies of culture and open their eyes to the larger world. Fuller had read about intellectual women, dared to think she was one, and prevailed upon her newspaper editor to send her to travel (well-chaperoned) to Europe to report on the Italian revolution, which was raging at the time.

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Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

, New York Times, 4 May 2012, Liesl Schillinger
“Waiting for Sunrise” takes place mostly in Austria and England before and during World War I. Lysander Rief, the actor son of a more famous actor, has left his actress fiancée behind in London and traveled to Vienna seeking treatment from a Freudian psychologist for a sexual difficulty that he fears will make him a very disappointing bridegroom. Entering the doctor’s waiting room, Lysander bumps into Hettie Bull. Lysander will buy a notebook to record his dreams and observations. Lysander’s notebook soon fills with more urgent enigmas that demand decoding. Why has he been thrown into a Viennese jail? Why is the British Foreign Office coming to his aid, and what do they want from him in return? Why are people trying to kill him? What should he do about his increasingly tangled relations with Hettie, and, for that matter, what’s to become of his fiancée? “Waiting for Sunrise” is a brainteaser, charged with uncertainty and danger, electric with restraint.

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Audio Books – Fiction

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell, Washington Post, 8 May 2012, Katherine A. Powers
The warrior Uhtred lays out the plot of this most recent addition to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. Narrator Stephen Perring takes on the book’s many battles in tones that are urgent without being shouty.

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Children’s Books – Fiction

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

, New York Times, 11 May 2012, Marjorie Ingall
“Code Name Verity” is the story of girl-pilot-and-girl-spy friendship, the thrill of flying a plane, the horrors of Nazi torture, and the bravery of French Resistance fighters. The narrator is Queenie, the girl spy. She’s Scottish, and she’s been caught because she looked the wrong way (left, Britishly) while crossing a French street. She might have talked her way out of trouble but for reasons that will become clear, she has no identification papers. She’s imprisoned in the Château de Bordeaux, a once elegant hotel, now serving as a Gestapo headquarters. Captain von Linden, Queenie’s captor, forces her to write her confession between bouts of torture. As long as Queenie writes, she will be allowed to stay alive. So Queenie unfurls the story of her friendship with the pilot, Maddie, interspersed with enough information about codes and airports to live for one more day, and another, and another.

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Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes

, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Mary Hoffman
In Hero on a Bicycle, Paolo’s relationship with his bike is as important to him as that with his faithful old dog, and both have a role to play in Shirley Hughes’s first novel. It’s set in a place and period little written about outside Italy: Florence during the German occupation of 1943/4. Thirteen-year-old Paolo sets out each night on his bike for the city centre, believing his excursions to be a secret. But his mother and older sister Costanza know all about them, and are wearily waiting for his safe return so that they can sleep.
What none of them knows is where Paolo’s father is; his political views have put him in danger from the fascists and he has had to go into hiding. Meanwhile the hills are full of partisans waiting for the moment when the allies will arrive to liberate the city. The increasingly desperate Germans are a danger to all they believe to be part of the resistance.

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Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King by Joyce Tyldesley, New York Times, 4 May 2012, John Noble Wilford

11th Century
The First Crusade: The Call From the East by Peter Frankopan, Washington Post, 2 May 2012, Michael Dirda

19th Century
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady, By Kate Summerscale, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Arifa Akbar
A brilliant excavation of a scandalous personal history that left its imprint on family law.
See also:
The Observer, 13 May 2012, Rachel Cooke
The Guardian, 12 May 2012, Alexandra Harris

Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater, The Guardian, 12 May 2012, John Barrell
There is an intriguing new theory on Britain’s only prime ministerial assassination, which took place 200 years ago today.

20th Century
City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist, Washington Post, 4 May 2012, Mark Caro

On The Eve: The Jews Of Europe Before The Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Ian Thomson

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston, New York Times, 11 May 2012, Adam Hochschild

The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham, New York Times, 4 May 2012, Timothy Snyder

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson, New York Times, 4 May 2012, William Poundstone

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott, The Independent on Sunday, 13 May 2012, Mark Wilson

Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, Washington Post, 4 May 2012, Mark Caro

The Great Sea by David Abulafia, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Nicholas Lezard
A fascinating study of the Mediterranean is full of stories pulled from the flotsam and jetsam of the past.

The History of England, Volume 1 by Peter Ackroyd, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Ian Pindar

A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell, The Independent, 8 May 2012, Christopher Hirst

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Glen Bowersock
A swashbuckling study of the origins of Islam.

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland, New York Times, 11 May 2012, Christopher Benfey
“Lives of the Novelists” appears to be more a compendium of reviews, of writers “who have come my way over a long reading career,” than a rigorously conceived assessment of the rise of the novel from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” to its current shifting shapes at the hands of Salman Rushdie and Alice Sebold.

Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Boyd Tonkin

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, The Independent on Sunday, 13 May 2012,David Evans
In this book, Jonah Lehrer argues that great artists and writers have demonstrated an uncanny awareness of mental life.

Biographies & Memoirs
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright, Washington Post, 11 May 2012, Philip Kerr

Cracking The Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life Of Jean-François Champollion by Andrew Robinson, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Brian Morton

China Hand: An Autobiography by John Paton Davies Jr., Washington Post, 11 May 2012, Jonathan Yardley
In November 1954 John Paton Davies Jr., deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Lima, Peru, was fired. His dismissal had nothing to do with his service in Peru and everything to do with his standing as one of several “China Hands,” Foreign Service veterans “who were China specialists and had dealt with Chinese Communists.” Davies and the others were victims of a fierce campaign by the so-called China Lobby, which charged that the China Hands’ attempts to report honestly about the state of affairs in China had undermined the administration of Chiang Kai-shek and brought about the triumph of Mao Tse-tung and his communists.

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris, Washington Post, 4 May 2012, Jonathan Yardley

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro, New York Times, 2 May 2012, Bill Clinton

Audio Books – Nonfiction
The Titanic: Disaster of a Century by Wyn Craig Wade, Washington Post, 8 May 2012, Katherine A. Powers

Children’s Books – Nonfiction
Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies by Marc Aronson, Washington Post, 1 May 2012, Abby McGanney Nolan

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Angelica Garnett, Writer of Frank Memoir of Bloomsbury Childhood, Dies at 93, New York Times, 12 May 2012, Margalit Fox

Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist, The Guardian, 12 May 2012, Hilary Mantel

A life in writing: Kate Summerscale, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Lisa Allardice
‘I’m a journalist playing historian, and then I try to convert what I’ve found into something like a novel’.

The captured cargo that unpacks the spirit of the grand tour, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Amanda Vickery
When French privateers seized the Westmorland, 50 crates of souvenirs were lost to their wealthy owners. Two centuries later, their contents sum up the aesthetics of the grand tour.

Carlos Fuentes, Mexican Writer, Dies at 83, New York Times, 15 May 2012, The Associated Press
Carlos Fuentes played a dominant role in Latin America’s novel-writing boom by delving into the failed ideals of the Mexican revolution.

Want a bestseller? Write about Henry or Hitler, The Observer, 13 May 2012, Robert McCrum
From Tudor England to the Third Reich, history’s megalomaniacs continue to make great lit.

Writing Britain: the nation and the landscape, The Guardian, 5 May 2012, Blake Morrison
Chaucer’s Canterbury, Emily Brontë’s moors, Graham Greene’s Brighton, Kureishi’s suburbia … The British Library’s new exhibition explores how literature has responded to the varying landscapes of these islands.

The Historical Novel Society was formed in 1997 and is devoted to historical fiction of all forms. Members receive our quarterly Historical Novels Review.

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Posted by Richard Lee