Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The power of TaraShea Nesbit's first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, builds slowly and catches the reader by surprise. Told in a chorus of women's voices, the book provides a powerful portrait of life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the years of the fateful Manhattan Project. Clothed in secrecy, the project's aim was unknown to even many of the men who worked on it—and their long-suffering wives, torn from homes across the country and brought to this desolate area, knew even less.
As Nesbit writes,
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
A time capsule in book form, this masterful debut recreates a lost world. Check out our full review here.
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
The story unfolds in three separate sections, each centered on the larger story of the Hungarian Gold Train during World War II. Readers follow three different men through three different time periods: Jack, a young Jewish-American captain in the war; Amitai, an Israeli-born art dealer in the current day who deals with repatriated items; and Dr. Zobel, a pioneering psychiatrist at the turn of the 20th century in Budapest.
An intricate gemstone peacock pendant holds the key to the novel's decades-spanning mystery, but the male narrators and Waldman's unique female characters (Jack's love Ilona, his daughter Natalie and the suffragette Gizella) truly make this novel shine.
Watch the captivating trailer for Love & Treasure below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in this new historical novel?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our web-exclusive Q&A with Waldman for more on Love & Treasure!
Is there anything as aesthetically intriguing as swinging 60's London? Pop-culture and music journalist William Shaw transports us into the world of mini-dresses, go-go boots and, of course, The Beatles in his newest mystery, She's Leaving Home.
But it isn't all peace and love and youthful rebellion—Shaw taps into the rampant sexism and xenophobia that colored much of this decade as well.
When the strangled body of a teenage girl is found near Abbey Road Studios, Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is assigned to the case, along with Helen Tozer, the first woman to join his detective staff. Shaw is on point with his characters, dialogue and period detail, making this first installation in his planned trilogy of cultural thrillers a highly recommended read.
Check out the slick trailer from Mulholland Books below:
Well readers, what do you think? Are you interested in reading She's Leaving Home?
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.
British novelist Jacqueline Winspear made a name for herself with a best-selling series starring an unconventional detective. Maisie Dobbs, a former maid who served as a nurse in the Great War, returned home to England to deal with her nation's troubled post-war psyche—and the resulting crimes.
But this year, Winspear is trying something new: She's written a novel set during World War I instead of after it, one that doesn't star her now-famous detective. The Care and Management of Lies (Harper) will be published in June. Its heroine, Kezia Marchant marries her best friend Thea's brother Tom just before the war breaks out. While Tom heads off to war, Kezia and Thea are caught up in the women's rights movement and struggle to hold onto the family farm.
Winspear is a perceptive writer with a historian's knowledge of the era she writes about. Even minus Maisie, her work should take readers on a fascinating ride. Will you read it?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE
Read our 2005 interview with Jacqueline Winspear.
Alex Myers cleverly blends his own family history with fiction in his unique debut novel, Revolutionary. We meet Deborah Samson Gannett, Myers' own ancestor, during the American Revolution in 1782. When the 22-year-old servant can no longer bear her oppressive life in Colonial Massachusetts, she makes her break for independence. Disguising herself as "Robert Shurtliff," the tall and strong Gannett joins the Continental Army.
Myers' own experience in coming out as transgender makes Deborah's internal struggle over her newly adopted identity and fears of rejection incredibly palpable. In a special column written for BookPage, Myers explains his writing process:
I wanted to let her character emerge fully, without bearing the imprint of my own. Yet, so often as I wrote, I thought—she would have worried about using the bathroom . . . she would have glowed when someone called her “young man”. . . just like me. There were many times when I felt that point of contact through the page.
Watch this video with author Alex Myers to learn more about the book:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested picking up this historical novel?
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list. Think J.R. Ewing and “Dallas.” Think Lonesome Dove. Think Faulkner. This stunning second novel from Philipp Meyer (following his critically praised debut, American Rust) combines epic storytelling, Texas tragedy and raw, powerful writing. Tracing the rise to power of the McCullough clan—from the birth of patriarch Eli in 1836 to the 20th-century struggles of great-granddaughter Jeannie—Meyer reveals more about Texas and its violent past than any history book ever could. Read our review or interview, or check out an excerpt. To see the full list of our best books of 2013, click here.
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
With each iteration of Ursula's life, the reader becomes more and more invested in her fate—even as we are led to ponder the nature of fate and reality itself. It's fascinating to see the small variations in the lives of characters we have come to know and love, and Atkinson portrays British country life on the eve of World War I and the horrors of the London Blitz with equal skill. Life After Life is remarkable achievement from one of today's best storytellers.
Read our review.