It’s been quite a run lately for Civil War-era African Americans. Not only was Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, adapted into a triple Academy Award winner (including Best Picture), but now author Jeffery Renard Allen has resurrected the career—if perhaps not quite the true life story—of Thomas Greene Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom, in his second novel, Song of the Shank. Wiggins was perhaps the most unlikely of stars ever thrust on the international stage; sightless, probably autistic, heavyset (though somewhat handsome in a rough-hewn way) and, for the first 16 years of his life, a slave.
Warning to the reader: It is impossible for this review to proceed without a number of spoilers. In case anyone still holds the charming belief (as I do) that the mechanics of plot have a bearing on our enjoyment of a novel, the reviewer feels obliged to perform his task up front. I shall do it The Quick (pardon the pun) way: If you are a fan of literary Gothic—think Susanna Clarke or John Harwood—buy this book. You won’t regret it.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014
The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel about Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to communicate through finger spelling.
Chinese-American author Lisa See has made her mark in the realm of historical fiction by melding her well-researched historical sagas with strong female characters linked either by birth, as in Shanghai Girls (2009) and Dreams of Joy (2011), or by lifelong friendship, as in her breakout book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005).
When people think about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, they often think of the iconic pink suit she wore on the fateful day that her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr., was assassinated in Dallas. Many people thought it to be a Chanel; however, it was a knock-off—made, like most of Mrs. Kennedy’s clothing, by an American dressmaker. Nicole Mary Kelby imagines the lives of one of those dressmakers through the lens of that famous outfit in her new novel, The Pink Suit, a luxurious narrative about Jackie Kennedy, a young seamstress, and the creation of the pink boucle suit.
This beautifully written novel opens with the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, the first on an American college campus. On a sunny August Monday, a student and former marine opened fire on the campus from the iconic clock tower, shooting 48 people and killing 16. But the shooting is only a touchstone for this story, which is more interested in the lives of a trio who met that fateful day.
Even before cracking its pages, it’s impossible not to marvel at the strange hybrid that is The Harlem Hellfighters. The topic—a fictionalized account of the real experiences of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I—is certainly book-worthy, be it fiction or nonfiction. The soldiers of the 369th encountered plenty of bigotry and hatred from their own countrymen before gaining the opportunity to fight in the trenches alongside the French.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, May 2014
Paris may be known as the City of Light, but in Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, it serves as the backdrop for some of the darkest events of human history—and for an exhilarating new novel from writer Francine Prose.
Sicilian wax sculptor Gaetano Zumbo left his hometown of Siracusa, Italy, at age 19, amid rumors of betrayal and patricide. On the run from his past, he made his way across Italy and changed his name to Zummo, all the while earning acclaim for his wax sculptures of human bodies. He eventually stopped in Florence to join the Medici court at the request of the Grand Duke himself, Cosimo III, whose unreciprocated love for his wife has left him tortured—and leads him to make a strange request of the celebrated sculptor.
Justin Go’s ambitious, sprawling and compelling debut novel, The Steady Running of the Hour, lurches from America to England, France, Sweden Germany and Iceland—even stretching to the Himalayas—switching back and forth in time from pre-WWI England to the present.