If you follow this blog and are suddenly receiving a deluge of new post notifications, my apologies. I have decided to consolidate my web efforts by merging this site with my Long Ago & Far Away site. That blog has been focused on historical fiction from off the beaten path. It now has its own feed on this site which can be found above in the navigation menu.
Once I have that merge sorted out I will make further updates.
I hope you enjoy some interesting reading while waiting for my own Long Ago & Far Away doorstop. Yes, it is crawling forward.
People ask if the world-wide quarantine has affected my writing efforts. Not so much. You can read about my personal status here.
I like to scan prize lists for potential Long Ago and Far Away reads. I’m happy to report that this year’s Booker International Prize nominees include the following historical fiction – four of the five are from off the beaten path:
Red Dogby Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans (Pushkin Press). From the publisher:
At the end of the eighteenth century, a giant strides the Cape Colony frontier. Coenraad de Buys is a legend, a polygamist, a swindler and a big talker; a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British; the fierce patriarch of a sprawling mixed-race family with a veritable tribe of followers; a savage enemy and a loyal ally.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Treeby Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions) – from the publisher:
Set in Iran in the decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this moving, richly imagined novel is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl, whose family is compelled to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village, hoping in this way to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives. But they soon find themselves caught up in the post-revolutionary chaos that sweeps across their ancient land and its people. Bahar’s mother, after a tragic loss, will embark on a long, eventful journey in search of meaning in a world swept up in the post-revolutionary madness.
The Adventures of China Ironby Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish (Charco Press) – from the publisher:
…charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, and to its national struggles.
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German (Scribe UK) – from the publisher:
At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste …
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German (Quercus) – From the publisher:
Daniel Kehlmann masterfully weaves the fates of many historical figures into this enchanting work of magical realism and adventure. This account of the seventeenth-century vagabond performer and trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel begins when he’s a scrawny boy growing up in a quiet village. When his father, a miller with a secret interest in alchemy and magic, is found out by the church, Tyll is forced to flee with the baker’s daughter, Nele. They find safety and companionship with a traveling performer, who teaches Tyll his trade. And so begins a journey of discovery and performance for Tyll, as he travels through a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War and encounters along the way a hangman, a fraudulent Jesuit scholar, and the exiled King Frederick and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree doesn’t really quite qualify as historical fiction but it still feels like a good fit and one I’d love to add to my TBR pile. It currently has one Amazon review but 221 on Goodreads.
Red Dog (two poor reviews on Amazon but 83 with a respectable 3.6 stars on Goodreads) also intrigues me especially as I am just now finishing up my blog post on Wilber Smith’s Monsoon (coming soon).
Like all the best historical fiction, reading The Ten Thousand Things, is a tactile immersion into an unfamiliar time and place leaving a lasting impression of an atmosphere and culture.
Looking through this blog I was appalled to find that I never wrote up any notes on this book. I must have read it several years ago and it continues to circle back to me—which is the best of signs. So many otherwise good books are easily forgotten.
Set at the demise of the Yuan Dynasty (14th century China), the story follows Wang Meng as he wanders the land on various personal errands and is gradually drawn into the cataclysmic events of his era.
There is not a lot of action until our refined artist/philosopher becomes a war strategist for a group of rebels and eventually endures the hardship and loss of a siege. But we also experience the complexity of this medieval Chinese society and a deep dive into the philosophical world of Chinese fine arts. As a painter I could almost see the paintings through Spurling’s descriptions.
Here’s an example:
He hung up several more recent vertical paintings which were further developments of his dialogue between fullness and emptiness. The emptiness became gradually more and more beleaguered. The distant mountains grew higher and craggier; the space setting out, as it were, from its home in the foreground—where a scholar, as often as not, sat writing in his study—picked its way from clearing to clearing in a winding upward progress, impeded by rocks and trees, to a grassy slope, a pool below a waterfall, a broad stretch of river, or a field where a man was ploughing. But when the eye reached the top of the painting the high crags which had dominated its ascent seemed to draw aside like curtains to offer a final clear passage to the sky.
Not all the descriptions are this detailed. But can’t you see the work in front of you?
One aspect of particular interest to me, beyond the life of the painters and their artistic philosophy is the tenacity of artists who continue to create while their world is in the midst of upheaval. This is a subject I’ve often thought to explore further.
I cannot comment on the story’s accuracy as I was ignorant of this period beforehand. But, once again, historical fiction serves as a bridge to new curiosity and knowledge. It gives us a place to start.
I was shocked to see that the book—winner of the 2015 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction—has only 20 reviews on Amazon. Does this mean readers of historical fiction don’t review on Amazon? Goodreads shows 154 ratings. Maybe that’s where they hang out.
Spurling has been writing since age 11. Despite his long career as a playwright and art critic, 44 publishers rejected The Ten Thousand Things. Oops. Their loss.
Highly recommended for a Long Ago and Far Away experience.
You can find reviews of The Ten Thousand Thingshere and here.
I imagined I’d complete the second draft of my novel by the end of June. Nope. Not even close. The picture above shows three colors of tabs noting areas needing factual or language research or just plain missing text. This image shows only 60 pages of manuscript.
This next photo is more recent and shows the markup of about 70 pages. Each color has a purpose—beyond research and pending text, most track the unfolding of information, backstory, or characters’ progressive thought. The intent is to weave a thousand threads—gradually building without repeating.
I need one more go-through of this section and I’ll likely move on. I think that will put me at around 40%.
I must complete this draft in 2020 or I will despair. The goal is to make sure all of the story/information is complete but resist word-crafting. The next draft will first be read for story, then I will start smoothing and refining.
As I noted in my prior post, The Night Tiger, I enjoyed that book so much that I committed to reading Ms. Choo’s earlier debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Here she also spins an enchanting yarn inspired by multiple streams of history, folklore, religious worldview and mystery.
Although set in 1898 British Colonial Malaya, much of The Ghost Bride takes place in a mythical afterlife.
Of the two novels, I prefer The Night Tiger. However, I come away from The Ghost Bride in awe of Ms. Choo’s imaginative storytelling skill.
The Ghost Bride has a stronger fantasy element—spends more time in unearthly realms. At a few points the plot nearly lost me. But I hung on and am glad I did.
The Night Tiger felt more like magical realism; anchored in the physical world but with excursions into the afterlife and folklore. The telling felt tighter, the story clearer.
Most importantly, I am now officially a fan of Ms. Choo. I will anxiously await anything she produces. As noted, her imagination makes me want to cheer.
You can find full reviews of The Ghost Bride here and here.
In The Night Tiger, Ms. Choo intertwines dreams, folklore, mystical creatures and in-between places with physical-world events in the lives of five vivid and compelling characters. Every answer leads to a new question. You feel the connections but you can’t guess where it all ends. She immerses you in 1930s multi-cultural Malaya without the story being about multi-culturalism—there’s no time to dwell on it. Too much is uncertain. Along the way, Ms. Choo blends the concrete and surreal with such finesse that you never doubt the truth of it.
Readers of Long Ago and Far Away stories will love the whirlwind journey through dance halls, rubber plantations, jungles and train rides, dark shophouses, hospital wards and English tea in a colonial bungalow. Ms. Choo effortlessly infuses her complex tale with rich texture and detail.
It’s been ages since I found a novel I couldn’t put down. For the first third of The Night Tiger, I kept trying to figure everything out. I finally relaxed and went along for the ride—and what a ride!
This book is highly recommended for lovers of Long Ago and Far Away!
Some Random Observations (Caution Minor Spoilers):
Ms. Choo builds the narrative around three point of view characters. (Two additional key players are not given a point of view). Ms. Choo uses 1st person past tense for Ji Lin, the main character and 3rd person present for Ren, the Chinese houseboy and his new master, William Acton, an English surgeon. Although somewhat jolting the first time the tense changed, I think it did help separate the characters once the pattern was set
Each character left me with their own thematic impression.
For Ji Lin – self-determination. She struggles against her culture’s assumptions about women, work and marriage.
Ren’s loyalty to his prior master drives much of the plot. That loyalty transfers to his new master and plays into the hand of Fate.
William’s character, though surprisingly sympathetic despite his obvious flaws, finally succumbs to ironic Karma.
As part of the setting’s immediacy, Ms. Choo sprinkles the text with snippets of Malaysian language. Since I can still read it, it made me giddy and kind of smug—as if I could be deeper attuned to the story than the average reader. I couldn’t possibly know whether it contributes or distracts for other readers—but she does clarify the meaning each time.
I won’t spoil the ending for you—but it felt a bit rushed. I would like to have seen a little more resistance from Shin in response to Ji Lin’s final decision. That decision felt right but I would like there to have been more conflict in their resolution.
In summary, I am thoroughly enchanted. I can’t wait to double back and read her first novel The Ghost Bride.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Night Tigerhere and here.
Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born author, began as a newspaperman in his native Beirut then moved to France at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.
The Rock of Tanios:
This book led me through a time and place for which I had no prior knowledge even though part of my Work in Progress moves through the same geography. Twelve hundred years pass between my subject and the world of Maalouf’s novel and yet I enjoyed the immersion into 1830s Lebanese mountain village life. This story of personal passion, murder and fateful decisions slowly expands to involve the wider political context—when Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, England and France vied for control of the region. All new territory for me.
My old interest in early medieval Central Asia drew me to this book. How could I pass up a story set in 11th century Samarkand? More, please!
As with The Rock of Tanios, this dual time-period novel introduced me to epochs of history to which I’d had little prior exposure: the life of Omar Khayyam during the Seljuk Empire and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907.
Again, some of my Work in Progress is set in Persia but five hundred years before any of the events included here.
But this is the attraction of reading historical fiction from off the beaten path. It opens up new adventures and the chance to see the world through another’s experience. Some say that stories help us develop empathy. They also help us understand ourselves.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Rock of Tanioshere and here.
You can find summaries and reviews of Samarkandhere and here.
Afterward—Long after I’d read these two novels, I realized that the author is one and the same with that of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes—the book I read way back in the early ‘90s which had such a strong effect on me. It was, in fact, one of the sparks which ignited my own slow movement towards my Work In Progress.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Crusades Through Arab Eyeshere and here.
My passions – tea and historical fiction (not opium!) – recently collided in the following two books:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction
I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.
Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path and especially stories by non-western writers.
So, what do these books have in common?
Colonialism, international trade and the early effects of globalism.
More specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.
For All the Tea in China tracks botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas – all to profit the East India Company.
I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at MacKay’s in Knoxville for every book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to find his writings and read them for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “adventures” have on the nationals – either as individuals or as communities.
Sea of Poppies – written from both Indian and colonists’ points of view – shows us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigration as indentured servants.
One man’s adventure is another’s demise.
You can read the reviews for:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction – here and here.
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction – here and here.
PS/Update: I recently stumbled upon an article from the New York Times that mentions Fortune’s brazen theft but focuses on the efforts to expand tea production from Darjeeling to Nepal. Enjoy!
As you can see from the image, I have four of the five books in this series. I do hope to catch up with the last one: Conqueror.
It has been several years since I read these stories but sometimes distance strengthens impressions.
Wolf of The Plains is by far the most memorable. When pondering character development or the influence of setting on psyche, this book often comes to mind. Iggulden immerses us into the life of a Mongol boy navigating a brutal cultural and natural environment. We walk alongside him while he establishes himself as the supreme leader of all who encounter him – starting with his own brothers. From a childhood of loss and hardship emerges the man who will conquer the world.
The series’ subplot – Genghis’ relationship with his son Joshi – is a tragedy often played out in the lives of great men. Unsure if Joshi is his own blood, Genghis never completely accepts him. (Genghis’ wife is raped at around the time of Joshi’s conception). Also, Genghis for too long delays rolling authority to his sons – clinging instead to absolute power – resulting in divisions and strife. In this I am reminded of Sharon Kay Penmen’s portrayal of Henry II, his family’s dysfunction and the ensuing fallout so brilliantly dramatized in her Plantagenet series. Both are examples of powerful leaders unable to relinquish control to the next generation.
Highly recommended for historical immersion, world/culture building, action/adventure.
It can find starred Reviews for these books on Amazon and Goodreads: