Book Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving BerlinI got a chance at the pre-release ARC of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as part of my membership at NetGalley. It intrigued me as a throwback to my time living in Berlin–and under Communist “secret informer” eyes even before that–, as well as a complete change of pace from my usual fare of scifi, fantasy, and romance novels. It was everything a political thriller should be: gripping, with small details that made the final reveal make sense.

The writing itself evoked Kafka and that hunted, haunted perspective of someone who has made a choice not to trust anyone. The politics of the U.S. Commie Scare drive the inciting incident, but the story has all the feeling of the titular location. The streets mentioned, the Brandenburger Tor, these were all places I’ve been, and the story felt every bit as surreal as a fantasy, being thrown back to when the walls still showed strafing–even as late as my last visit in the late 90s. But this story was also set in a time when the initial post-war fervor for ideology was at its height:

Alex looked at their bright, attentive faces, Brecht’s cynicism as out of place here as it had been in California, and for the first time felt the hope that warmed the room. Shabby suits and no stockings, but they had survived, waited in hiding or miraculously escaped, for this new chance, the idea the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this story, even with its early, disjointed jumps, captures the underlying reality that pushes questionable decisions. I know there’s a file somewhere in Berlin that documents the years I lived there with my family; my father has seen and read the redacted version. Knowing who the confidential informants were–who were also our friends–makes for another surreal echo for me in this story. As well as the classic German class distinctions and need for philosophical underpinnings and rationalizations. I don’t know how much of that will convey to someone who doesn’t have the personal experiences I do, but I suspect those echos will be as gripping and uncomfortable even for those without my perspective.

For that reason, I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a “quiet” historical thriller, driven, in the end, just by the love of a father for his son–an echo across generations. It takes some getting used to the literary devices in the early chapters, but the action doesn’t let you go, either, so it’s likely a book for those who read a mystery once for the reveal, and then ten more times for the nuances that got you there. Even more, I strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks they know Communist history in its monolithic path. The details matter, as well as the personal lives and motivations that push forward such a stark ideology, and this story plays that out as clearly as any I’ve read on the subject.

Book Review: In Lucia’s Eyes

In Lucia's EyesThis hardcover caught my eye in a bargain bin a few years back; I enjoy foreign literature, and this had been translated from original Dutch version written by Arthur Japin. It is billed as historical fiction, pieced together on thin fact surrounding the legendary Giacomo Casanova.

According to the cover flap text:

She is a servant girl in an Italian manor house, educated by her lascivious lord, engaged to a young man by the name of Giacomo–and suddenly disfigured by the pox. Fleeing in shame and without warning, piercing the heart of her beloved, Lucia faces a bewildering new world alone. She will move across Europe for sixteen years–from Naples to Venice, Paris, and Amsterdam–working as a housekeeper, a lady’s companion, and finally, as a much-sought-after courtesan. In salons, opera boxes, and boudoirs, her curiosity and intelligence are nurtured by the revolutionary new ideas of the Enlightenment, passionately debated in spheres of society she has never known before. But not until her accidental reunion with Giacomo Casanova–now the tragic figure of infamous legend–will the lessons of her astonishing journey be revealed to her, and with them, her truest self.

The book is written in a very contemplative tone and definitely reflects the veiled perspective Lucia takes on later in her life. However, the distance the reader feels from the characters Lucia describes and interacts with allows for quite a few philosophical discussions, despite her being born into the servant class:

“Shame is one of the basest of urges,” said Zélide. “I place it at the bottom of the ladder of civilized feeling, between revenge and jealousy. It’s a destructive force, fed by fear.” I heard her close by but could not see her. “We carry this pernicious impulse within us as one of nature’s burdens, but we must fight against it. We must!”

With that she appeared, her face suddenly close to mine.

“Why fear what is?” she whispered. I looked her in the eyes. To judge from my discomfort, I don’t believe we had ever been so close.

It’s a fascinating account of a life made extraordinary by the intelligence hidden behind both simple beginnings and a grotesquely disfigured face. Its slow pace combines with its short length to leave you in a somewhat dreamy state, wondering what impact you might wittingly or not have had on the people around you.

It’s also not a book everyone will enjoy. Its antecedents are definitely in some of the Romantic tendencies of Europe in the 1800s as those countries fought to move into the Enlightenment. Lucia’s training itself addresses the tension between the unschooled, artless flourish of emotion and the cold logic of philosophical exploration. That theme carries through the whole book and could turn off anyone not drawn to those debates. But for those who are, the lush setting, ranging from Italy through most of Europe from a female’s perspective, contributes as much as the philosophizing to a lasting and worthwhile impression of the work–and a visceral understanding of the importance of emotion even in the face of so much logic.

Book Review: Shield of Three Lions

Shield of Three LionsI have to admit to being a little overbooked (no pun intended!) these past few weeks. I’ve missed reading for review as I’ve been focused on reading for editing–both my own and freelance assignments. So I’m back to digging in my shelves for old favorites that deserve yet another bit of publicity. For this installment, I offer Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman.

My mom gave me this book as a hard-cover first edition for my birthday back in 1983. It is looking a little dog-eared these days, but back then this was one of my first introductions to historical fiction–to say nothing of being an adult-sized hard-cover with its own dust jacket. (I had previously been all about the Scholastic paperbacks and whatever library books struck my fancy, so caring for a dust jacket that wasn’t either permanently attached to its book or otherwise wrapped for posterity was a new experience.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it (I had barely graduated from Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins at that point), but willingly dove in. And was transported. From the flyleaf:

Shield of Three Lions is breathtaking and exciting–a panoramic tapestry of a novel set in the Middle Ages that weaves the sights, the sounds, the smells and the pageantry of a magical age with the story of Alix, an extraordinary young heroine. Bawdy, earthy and full of fascinating detail, Shield of Three Lions heralds a new talent who has a spectacular ability to entertain readers royally.

Nubile Alix is as appealing a heroine as ever graced the pages of a novel. Resourceful, inventive and irrepressibly inquisitive, the violently orphaned Alix disguises herself as a boy to seek an audience with King Richard the Lionhearted so that she may regain her plundered estate.

I don’t know if it was because I was barely out of 6th grade and this was my first truly adult book (including a very adult scene at the end of it), or if it was because I was approximately the same age as the heroine who traipses from the edge of Scotland through France, Italy, and Jerusalem, but this book has always held a special spot in my heart. I feel like I learned as much about the Crusades from the vivid descriptions Kaufman offers as I did about women’s issues and war, rape, pillage, and plunder. There really wasn’t anything that was glossed over, including the dread arrival of Alix’s first menstrual cycle deep in enemy territory.

To get that far, though, the reader is first introduced to the strange Scot who agrees to stand in as Alix’s brother and make sure she, disguised as a he even before Enoch first meets her, and his even stranger rites and beliefs:

“From this day forward, Enoch Angus Boggs and me be blud brothers. And I recognize that brotherhood and loyalty to the clan be the most sacred tie in the whole wide world. By bogle and houlets sent by Nick, by gannets from witches in the west, by the soul in my body, by the ghosts of my parents, by the Holy God and His Son, I swear that Enoch be my brother and I’ll ne’er deceive him by word or by deed on pain of death. Amen.”

Still choking, I gasped out the words.

“Wait, there’s more. We shall e’er be together unto death and–list to this well–we shall ne’er hinder each other in love. But we will help each other advance, and in our case that means land. Sae let’s hear namore of yer land or my land: it’s our land. And let’s hear namore of the demon Scots since one drop of Scottish blood makes ye as Scottish as me. We be brothers in all things. Now let me tell ye exactly quhat my plan be, fer I’ve had the long day to work out details.”

He then proposed a most astonishing course. He would keep to his original plan of going to Paris to study law, only now I, too, would go to study with him, leaving my wolf with Jasper Peterfee. Together we would explore every legal means of recovering “our land” at the same time that we learned King Henry’s whereabouts and made arrangements to meet with him. Once the land was ours, by whichever means came first, we would hurry back to claim it, share and share alike. …

I thought of the terrible events of the day. The very worst was drinking Scottish blood, for while I knew the vow of brotherhood didn’t hold since I wasn’t a boy and could be no one’s brother, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t a Scot. A fate worse than death.

The range of details, large and small, that Kaufman wove into this book kept me enraptured as a 12-year-old and has enticed me to re-read the book every few years since then. I’ve since learned that there is a second and third installment to this story, and despite my normal inclination to read everything a well-loved author has produced, I have to admit some trepidation about how she could possibly have ever topped a story that includes everything from the Sack of Acre to references to Robin Hood and his band. The strange concept that Scots, another English-speaking group on the same island as the English would be so culturally different and Alix persist in supporting her early indoctrination against them until very nearly the end of the book, was actually one of my first literary introductions to the concepts of discrimination and prejudice. And the idea that an author could explore topics that could cause shouting matches among adults really fired me up.

So I’m happy to recommend this oldie but goodie one more time, publicly. For anyone who likes historical fiction placed firmly in the midst of historical fact, with a dash of romance and a whole lot of adventure… This one’s for you.

Book Review: The Twelfth Transforming

The Twelfth TransformingI read this book the first time in the late 80s, and have read it many times since then as well as loaned my copy to friends. This book is a compelling presentation of of ancient Egypt and fueled my fascination with that epoch to a great degree.

From the Amazon description:

Part of a popular line of historical thrillers set in Egypt, this second volume in Gedge’s bestselling series reconstructs the court of Akhenaten, one of ancient Egypt’s most controversial and colorful rulers, whose reign lead to the near-collapse of his empire some 2,500 years ago.

As someone who, at the time, didn’t know a great deal of the specifics of that era, but had been through any number of museum exhibits sharing elements of Egyptian archeology, the story sucked me in from the very beginning with its evocative language and intricate plotting. I had seen the bust of Nefertiti on display at the Egyptian Museum of Charlottenburg only a few years earlier, so it was my first experience of reading a fictionalized account of a figure from antiquity, and ignited my yen for the historical fiction genre generally.

When I get nostalgic about Egyptian history, this is the book I go back to again and again, for passages like:

When they had backed down the expanse of tessellated floor and the doors had closed silently behind them, Amunhotep sobered. “Well, my Tiye, what is on your mind? You did not come here to make love to a fat old god with rotting teeth.”

She quickly suppressed the moment of anxiety such talk from him always brought to her. He was shrewd and cold,this man, extracting a pitiless amusement out of every human failing, even his own, and he better than any other knew the irony in his description of himself. For at Soleb, in Nubia, his priest worshipped him with incense and song night and day, and a thousand candles burned before a colossal statue of Amunhotep, the living god, a likeness that neither aged nor sickened.

Gedge doesn’t gloss over the excesses of the royal court, and no less shies away from the infidelities nor incest and other elements distasteful to modern moralists. Yet she does it without judgement in such a way that every element of the story is supported and pushed forward by the logical weight of the momentum of action and reaction.

Picking up this book is always an invitation to lose myself in ancient Egypt for a few hours, and tonight was no different. Once again I am moved by the compelling (and cut-throat) politics depicted and the at once broad sweep of history that still conveys the deeply personal relationships between the primary players. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Egyptology or Machiavellian-style politics.

Book Review: My Father Had A Daughter

My Father Had A DaughterI ran across a hard-cover version of this on the clearance table of a local book store, and decided that a speculative fiction novel about Shakespeare’s daughter by a woman who is an English professor who teaches about Shakespeare might be an illuminating view of the bard. Particularly since I’ve read quite a few of his plays and enjoyed the multi-layered language he used but never had any real sense of the time and place that generated those works.

Naturally, this book would also touch on the strange dichotomy of being a female in an age and area where that was commonly a hindrance to any career achievement–saving, of course, the queen, who herself was not keen on changing that status quo for her subjects. As the flap text in my edition reads:

Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Judith and her twin borther, Hamnet, see little of their father. His visits are infrequent, and they know him only as “the scribbling one.” Bit by bit, however, he begins to share with them his poetry of star-crossed lovers, a jailed English king, a murderous moneylender, a fairy queen. By the edge of the River Avon, the twins devise games based on their father’s wondrous poetry to entertain each other whenever he is away.

The way Judith is written in this story, she has inherited a full measure of her father’s imagination. But where it earns him his living, it gets her in trouble. In fact, it loses her her twin.

I lowered my hand. “And now,” I said, “we must join the river god in his element.”

“What be that?” asked Hamnet.

I did not truly know, but I thought it should have something to do with water, and so I told Hamnet we must duck our heads three times beneath the surface. “One,” I said, and we ducked. “Two,” I said, and we ducked again. But when I came to the surface the second time I did not see Hamnet’s head.

Instead I felt his legs scrape against mine as the current carried him downriver.

From beginning with hero worship and moving to a desperate hatred of how her father portrays her mourning of her brother, Judith’s journey reflects the extreme of what a parent-child relationship can be. And it gives a broad-strokes view of what life was like for common English women in Shakespearean times. The whole idea that it was against the law for women to become actors, and what that meant for intelligent, imaginative women becomes the focus of the second half of the book.

I enjoyed the book for exactly that perspective: A woman who has researched that period extensively and is sharing some of that perspective through an accessible story–even if some historical purists argue that actual documents paint Shakespeare’s daughter as both illiterate and simple. This is fiction, after all, and I trust the emotionally evocative journey to adulthood as much as the stage dressing discussions that lend a clear background to the tale. So I can happily recommend this book to anyone without even a basic background in Shakespeare’s plays or writing, since his words are ably introduced as part of the framework of the story. Better, I can recommend this to anyone else who wondered about Shakespeare’s designation of his “second-best” bed to his wife in his will, and considered that he might not be as enlightened an individual in his daily life as he conveys in his work.

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