Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: Quin’s Shanghai Circus by Ted Whittemore

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QuinsShanghaiCircusQuin’s Shanghai Circus by Ted Whittemore (Open Road Media, 2013)

“Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue.” So begins Quin’s Shanghai Circus, a sprawling, intriguing novel that spans some seven centuries and three continents.

At the center of the story is Quin, a man who was born in Japan, orphaned in Shanghai, and raised in the Bronx. After an encounter with a mysterious stranger in a bar, Quin accompanies his friend Big Gobi—simple of mind but pure of heart—on a journey to Tokyo to meet Big Gobi’s guardian. In Quin’s quest to learn about his parents, he encounters a range of truly bizarre characters with equally bizarre stories to tell—prostitutes, sociopathic policemen, a disillusioned Trotskyite, a diabetic Japanese baron who renounced his wealth and moved to Israel to become a rabbi—that initially seem random and disjointed but that ultimately connect.

This was not an easy book to read. It’s a novel of intrigue, of violence and horror, of love and discovery, and at its heart a novel of friendship and connection. But it’s also disjointed, nonlinear, and confusing—which is not necessarily a criticism; not understanding exactly how the pieces will fit together is what makes a puzzle enjoyable even as it can be frustrating.

Much of the book takes place during World War II in Japan and China, and some of the characters participate in and are affected by the horrors that took place during the Japanese occupation, including those in Nanking. None of this is gratuitous, but it is disturbing.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus was originally published in 1974 to critical acclaim but disappointing sales. This reprint edition is worth reading for the extras alone: a foreword, an introduction, and an essay, “An Editorial Relationship,” all by people who knew Whittemore personally and professionally and who give tremendous insight into his life and his writing.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King

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The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. Bones of ParisKing (Bantam, 2013): Harris Stuyvesant series

It’s September 1929, and Paris during the Jazz Age is filled with artists—painters, photographers, writers, and filmmakers—and their hangers-on, many of them beautiful young women. When one such young woman goes missing, her American parents contact private investigator Harris Stuyvesant to make sure she’s all right. There is a slight wrinkle: Stuyvesant is more than just an acquaintance of Philippa Crosby, having had an affair with her some time back. Although he’s fairly certain Pip is just off having fun somewhere, he agrees to take the case (not least because he’s just arrived in Paris flat broke).

Stuyvesant begins by visiting Pip’s apartment. There he meets her intriguing roommate, which leads to even more complications not only because his previous relationship with Pip makes his growing attraction to her roommate awkward, but also because of the unexpected return of the woman he’s been trying to forget for the past three years. The complex web of relationships—everybody knows everybody, it seems—makes for a compelling investigation, as does the setting. Paris is a living, breathing entity. The pacing is deceptive; although the plot seems slow to develop with perhaps too much attention given to the visual arts, in fact the suspense steadily builds and the immersion into the artistic mind-set of the time is vital to solving the mystery of Pip’s disappearance.

Stuyvesant’s journey into the Paris art world is fascinating, and the integration of real artists and their work is seamless. There’s enough background and description of surrealist art to bring the art scene to life but not enough that my eyes glazed over. The horrors of the Great War opened up to a time of decadence and selfishness; within certain circles, Art was elevated above all else and the human body was just another medium. There’s a growing sense of desperation as the story unfolds, and knowing what’s around the corner—the Wall Street Crash is just a month away—makes the reader all too aware that this is a society headed straight for a cliff.

This is the second book in a series. I read the previous book, Touchstone, several years ago. While the events of Touchstone are referred to, I think The Bones of Paris stands up on its own. Anyone planning to read both books should read Touchstone first, however, not only to preserve the order of the series but also because it’s a weaker book, and readers who are impressed with The Bones of Paris might feel let down a bit by Touchstone.

 

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova

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TheAgeofIceThe Age of Ice by J. M. Sidorova (Scribner, 2013)

 

Blurb: An epic debut novel about a lovelorn eighteenth-century Russian noble, cursed with longevity and an immunity to cold, whose quest for the truth behind his condition spans two thrilling centuries and a stunning array of historical events.

 

In 1740, the Russian empress issues a cruel and unusual order: two court jesters (one of them actually an out-of-favor nobleman) are locked into a palace made of ice, where they are wed and left to consummate their marriage. Out of this union come twins: the princes Andrei and Alexander Velitsyn.

Andrei lives a relatively normal, if short, life, but Alexander’s life is long and remarkable. He explores the Siberian wilderness in search of the Northeast Passage; he fights—so many fights, from the Cossack rebellion to the Napoleonic Wars; he is caught up in the Great Game and both World Wars; he mingles with artists and writers as varied as Mary Shelley and Anna Akhmatova. He makes and loses fortunes. He loves, in his way, yet throughout the novel he holds himself aloof and distant from those around him because he has a secret: he is impervious to cold. More than that, he is cold. Strong emotion—and physical arousal—manifest as the chilling of his body: snow and ice will not melt in his hands.

Alexander is a character who doesn’t really arouse sympathy so much as fascination. His is not a straightforward journey. He’s driven by a need to discover why he is what he is, and if there is another like him. The physical distance that is forced upon Alexander by his unique physiology is mirrored in the way he’s presented: there is a distance to the first-person narration, and Alexander, while longing to be connected to someone either physically or emotionally, is unable to articulate that need or his reasons for avoiding such connections. But while the chilling effect of feeling distant from the main character can sometimes take away from a novel, in this case it adds depth to it. It allows the reader some insight into Alexander: he’s not just living under a thin coating of ice, he spends much of the book encased in ice armor.

This is not a book where events happen quickly. It is a sprawling epic, and some knowledge of Russian history and/or literature is extremely helpful to provide signposts along the way (the timeline of events at the back of the book is also quite useful for keeping track). The writing is excellent, in particular the descriptions of the cold and the ice; the book is like a Russian winter, slow to start but intense and lingering. It is the slow burn of ice, that bone-deep chill. Although I’ve seen this described as a fantasy novel, I didn’t really see it that way. It’s definitely historical fiction, but I would call this magical realism: richly layered, and while the settings feel real and authentic, Alexander’s long life, and his affliction, are clearly not of this world. Sidorova is an author to watch.

 

My rating: 4 stars

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

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GodsofGothamThe Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2012)

Blurb: 1845. New York City forms its first police force. The great potato famine hits Ireland. These two seemingly disparate events will change New York City. Forever.

Timothy Wilde tends bar near the Exchange, saving every dollar and shilling in hopes of winning the girl of his dreams. But when his dreams literally incinerate in a fire devastating downtown Manhattan, he finds himself disfigured, unemployed, and homeless. His older brother obtains Timothy a job in the newly minted NYPD, but he is highly skeptical of this untested “police force.” And he is less than thrilled that his new beat is the notoriously down-and-out Sixth Ward-at the border of Five Points, the world’s most notorious slum.

One night while returning from his rounds, heartsick and defeated, Timothy runs into a little slip of a girl—a girl not more than ten years old—dashing through the dark in her nightshift . . . covered head to toe in blood.

Timothy knows he should take the girl to the House of Refuge, yet he can’t bring himself to abandon her. Instead, he takes her home, where she spins wild stories, claiming that dozens of bodies are buried in the forest north of 23rd Street. Timothy isn’t sure whether to believe her or not, but, as the truth unfolds, the reluctant copper star finds himself engaged in a battle for justice that nearly costs him his brother, his romantic obsession, and his own life.

This is a fantastic book. Set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, this is a book that engages all the reader’s senses–and coming from a reader who is not visual, that’s saying something.

The level of historical detail is perfect: not so much that you feel you’re reading someone’s research notes, but enough to fully immerse you in the setting. The characters are real and fully formed, and the plot is compelling. The character relationships are intriguing; there’s a part of me that would love for this book to become a series, although obviously it more than stands on its own.

My rating: 5 stars