One of the most anticipated debut novels this fall is The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith. The novel centers on a family living in a small coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century. Anita Shreve praises the novel, saying that it will give readers “several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”
Smith recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers about The Story of Land and Sea and the fascinating inspiration for her novel.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write The Story of Land and Sea?
Katy Simpson Smith: The germ of the story came from a trip I took to Beaufort when I was living in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful historic town [with] a graveyard chock full of interesting stories. One of the graves that most arrested me had a marker that read “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg”—no name, no date. Imagining this girl’s life led me to all the other characters in the novel.
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about the research that went into creating this story?
KSS: I have a background in history and particularly studied the late 18th century when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school. For that project, I read so many letters and diaries and record books that the language of the time period became an almost natural rhythm in my head. That’s, of course, the hardest leap—trying to imagine not just what these people ate and wore but how they formed their ideas. But I also had to research all the small things, too: the various parts of a ship, the stages of yellow fever, the movements of the Continental Army. This is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me.
BTC: Parent-child relationships play an important part in the novel. What do you think it is about that relationship that makes it so compelling even though it’s such a common theme in fiction?
KSS: I think families are something every one of us can relate to; we’re all born into them, for better or worse, and the presence or absence of parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. can shape how we respond to our environments. Family is the lens through which we interpret what happens to us. The interactions between parents and children are so various and weighted with meaning that we could write fiction for another thousand years and never exhaust the subject.
BTC: You have earned a Ph.D. in history as well as a MFA, so writing a historical novel seems like the perfect way to combine your interests. Did you always want to write fiction?
KSS: I’ve been writing since I was tiny! Stories about fairies, stories about little girls with a dozen siblings, mawkish poems. I think it just took me many years to realize that making up stories could be more than a secret passion. Taking that first step from history to fiction was remarkably scary, but it turns out that doing what you love really is the best feeling in the world.
BTC: The Story of Land and Sea is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
KSS: Everything has been pretty exciting, but I think I was giddiest when I flew to New York to meet with editors. Not only did I get to walk around New York, feeling like an awestruck country mouse, but I discovered that all these big-time publishing people aren’t scary at all—they’re simply regular people who love books an awful lot, just like me. As for what’s been surprising, again, it’s kind of everything! I hope one day that I’m an old hand at all this, but I can guarantee it’s going to take a long time for the novelty to wear off.
BTC: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
KSS: I’m actually working now on my second novel, which is also historical and set in the South. It’s been good to have a project to bury my head in during the craziness of the publishing process!
Great art "is capable of grabbing a person," explains one of the characters in Lisette's List, the equally enthralling new historical novel by bestselling author Susan Vreeland. Fans of Ms. Vreeland and her well regarded art-inspired fiction will not be disappointed with this story of a young woman's defining journey into the ordinary life of a rural French village and the power of art that beckons her amidst a world war. Recently, Susan Vreeland answered questions for Between the Covers about her latest effort.
Between the Covers: In Lisette’s List, you introduce readers to one of the most beautiful villages in France and to the organic nature of art in this sweeping story of self-discovery set around World War II. Unlike your previous art-related novels, this story explores more than one work of art. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and the setting for this latest book?
Susan Vreeland: It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist's friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters who I wanted to embrace.
Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.
BTC: Lisette tells her own story. What made you decide on a first-person narrator?
SV: First person was a natural choice. I wanted Lisette's realizations and discoveries to be revealed in her own voice. I thought that would lend an air of authenticity to the story if she would be the one to deliver it. Also, this point of view lent itself to her writing of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”
BTC: As a writer of historical fiction, how do you reconcile the facts of the time period with your characters’ development?
SV: One has to be careful with this. A writer of historical fiction cannot stray too far away from recorded fact. Integrating a fictional character is not hard when that character encounters events of history, as in this case, World War II. In fact, the wealth of information about that war helped me invent peripheral characters, like Bernard. An enigma for much of the novel, he ends up illustrating the conclusion that in war, particularly a long war, no one comes out unstained. That applies to Maxime as well.
BTC: Inspired to “do the important things first,” Lisette creates a list of vows to herself. Are you maker of lists yourself?
SV: I suppose I am: lists of ideas for novels and poems, lists of books to read, lists of things I want to learn, lists of places I want to go. However, I don't keep a superficial bucket list, as common parlance calls it, nor should we think of Lisette's list as a bucket list. I consider it to be deeper, at least most of the items on it. They are designed to show the inner Lisette to us.
BTC: At what moment did you realize the power of art could be conveyed through your stories?
SV: This happened very early on. Let's take my first art-related novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Lisette's List as examples. Both involve the Second World War, and large-scale pillage of art as well as small-scale theft. In writing the separate stories that comprise Girl, I realized that art could be coveted, that art could betray a secret, that art could exonerate bad behavior, that it could be seen as a commodity, that it could be loved by the unfortunate and uneducated as well as the fortunate and educated, and that it could be loved in a pure sense of awe at its beauty. If you reread Girl, you'll see that I have described each chapter this way.
Now, with Lisette's List, I move deeper in developing the theme of the power of art. While the uneducated (Pascal) also adores paintings, it is the educated (Maxime) who sees in them the scope of art history and for what they do for people. Great art, he says, “is capable of grabbing a person...and holding him in a trancelike state of union with the subject until he sees who he is or who we are as human beings more clearly...Being completely absorbed by a piece of art, he becomes minutely different than he was before, less limited to his previous, narrower self, and this equips him to live a better life and to avoid getting swallowed by the world's chaos.”
BTC: Of the works you have researched do you have any favorites?
SV: As difficult a question as choosing which of one's children one loves most. Certainly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party comes to mind, for the joie de vivre of 14 of Renoir's friends enjoying an afternoon on a terrace overlooking the Seine, and so openly allowing me to tell their stories. From Lisette's List, I favor Chagall's exultant Promenade with Marc holding up Bella on one hand as she flutters sideways in the sky, too exuberant after the October Revolution in Russia to remain on the earth. And from The Forest Lover, Emily Carr's monumental painting of a Red Cedar, “…more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that brought her this far: reaching.”
BTC: Libraries have played a significant role in your growth as a writer and researcher. Can you share a favorite memory?
SV: Ah, libraries, my second homes from grade school to adulthood, and the groundwork of my fiction. It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on 19th century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.
And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall's historic "Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944," a thrilling discovery. Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette's List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family's seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast and systematic seizure of Europe's art by what Chagall called "satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity." By focusing on one character's loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding and threats to national patrimony which are still concerns today.
Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don't know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities — in the arts, the humanities, the sciences — but librarians get glimpses, and that's what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.
Author Sophie Hannah, with full permission from Agatha Christie’s family, has sharpened her little grey cells and put pen to paper to create a brand new mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s best-loved sleuths. The Monogram Murders begins in 1920 as Poirot escapes the bustle of the city by enjoying a cup of coffee in a small coffee house. There, he meets the distraught Jennie who is in fear for her life and spinning a tale of murder and justice. Before he can discover the full story, Jennie flees the coffee shop and is nowhere to be found. Three dead bodies are soon discovered in a nearby hotel, each with a cufflink stuffed into its mouth. Poirot senses a connection. Can the little Belgian detective solve the murder and find Jennie before it is too late?
Agatha Christie fans will rejoice that Sophie Hannah is able to continue the adventures of their beloved obsessive detective. Agatha Christie featured Poirot in 33 novels and 50 short stories, including Cards on the Table, where a game of bridge turns deadly, and Death on the Nile, where a honeymoon vacation abruptly comes to a halt. Every one of the stories and novels were filmed by the BBC and feature actor David Suchet. The final films can be seen in Poirot: Series 13, a collection of five films, including Elephants Can Remember and Dead Man’s Folly.
With over four billion novels sold, Agatha Christie has become the best-selling novelist of all time, and it is only natural for fans to want more. Sophie Hannah, already a successful crime writer, tackles the challenge with panache, and captures Poirot’s voice and mannerisms perfectly. The novel has colorful suspects, devious twists and turns, and the introduction of a new young detective named Edward Catchpool who is ready to assist Poirot in his efforts to solve the crime. The Monogram Murders will appeal to anyone familiar with Christie, but will also serve as a good introduction to new readers who can then delve in to the works of the true queen of crime.
Martin sits in a doctor’s office.
He experiences disquiet bordering on irritation as the doctor laboriously details the characteristics of his diagnosis. Later, his mind drifts and he is relieved from the intolerable present by the welcome intrusion of a memory. That picnic from a summer’s day so long ago; the hum of the bees, the drone of his parents’ languid conversation; the soft edges of a single cotton ball cloud scudding overhead. It is a memory worth keeping, even if it never happened.
He sighs. It’s been getting more difficult to know the difference these days….
Martin’s recollection of the past is changing. Increasingly, confabulations are taking the place of his real memories, and he knows it won’t be long before the truth of what happened in the distant past is lost. But what is truth and what is illusion? What happens when the line separating the two becomes permeable? In The Confabulist, Steven Galloway plays with these questions as he explores the fateful connection between the humble Martin Strauss and Harry Houdini, the greatest illusionist who ever lived.
Like so many illusions up the magician’s sleeve, The Confabulist is replete with misdirection and second guesses. From the first pages, Galloway puts us on notice that the narrator cannot be implicitly trusted. The story that follows is therefore as much a game of detective work for the reader as it is a work of historical fiction. Galloway’s skillful interplay between past and present, confabulation and real memory, will keep the reader speculating throughout the intertwining tales.
Readers who enjoy Galloway’s treatment of the themes of memory and Victorian spiritualism may also enjoy Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing.
With lyrical text and a moving storyline, Nomi Eve takes the reader along on a journey of a young Jewish girl and her extended family in her upcoming novel Henna House. Eve’s story is that of the Jewish community in Yemen in the early 20th century. Continuing through the far-reaching horrors of the Holocaust and to the birth of the State of Israel, it is a tale as rich and exotic as the warm and beautiful henna that adorn the characters.
Imam Yahya has renewed the statute known as the Orphan’s Decree. If the father of an unbetrothed Jewish child dies, that child would be taken from their family, converted and adopted into a Muslim family. The health of 5-year-old Adela Demari’s father is failing. Her parents are desperate to find Adela a future husband and have the marriage contract written in the hopes that it would protect her from the watchful eye of the Collector. Finding that future husband proves to be a difficult task. It is not until Uncle Zecharia, a spice and perfume merchant, arrives from a distant land bringing with him Adela’s cousin, Asaf, that her luck seems to change. With the betrothal in place and the children contracted to become married once they become of age, it seems Adela’s worries of being confiscated are behind her. But when Asaf and his father leave, young Adela feels abandoned and is only comforted by the arrival of her aunt, a henna artist, and her cousin, Hani.
Follow Adela and her extended family as she grows up and discovers the depth of female companionship, gains a deeper understanding of the world, feels the joy of love, the pain of loss and betrayal, and the power of forgiveness. Henna House is an excellent choice for someone who enjoyed Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and anyone who enjoys historical fiction, family sagas and coming-of-age stories.
Jacqueline Winspear, highly respected author of the Maisie Dobbs series, has created a standalone novel based on an unusual premise: the importance of food in a war effort. The Care and Management of Lies is a story of two young British women, Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden, friends since early school days, who take very different paths in life. By mid-summer 1914, Kezia can think of nothing else but her imminent marriage to Thea’s brother Tom, who runs the family farm. Thea chooses a life of independence and has embraced the women’s suffrage movement and the peace protestors. While Kezia’s life is ordered and traditional, Thea’s is chaotic and fraught with peril. Kezia embraces her life as a farmer’s wife with rare creativity; while Thea avoids possible prison by responding to a friend’s overtures to join the Ambulance Corps in France.
As the war spirals into an entrenched stalemate, Tom reluctantly leaves home to serve his country. Kezia is determined that he not miss a single meal while he is absent. Each evening, she carefully plans her menu of uncommonly original recipes, sets Tom’s place at the table and writes letters filled with descriptions of her creations. While lovingly prepared, these meals are only a product of Kezia’s imagination. Soldier and civilian alike suffer from the blockade that prevents the island nation from successfully feeding its people and army.
Winspear has successfully woven a story of civilians and soldiers, friends and enemies, want and plenty. This is one of many works commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the War to End All Wars. Fans of Anne Perry’s World War I series and Charles Todd’s works featuring Bess Crawford as a World War I nurse will surely enjoy this original perspective on the subject.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.
R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.
Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.
Some books are beautifully written while others tell a fascinating story. And then there is Anthony Doerr’s new novel All the Light We Cannot See, which combines exquisite prose with an engrossing and layered tale of history, science and myth set in Europe during the era of World War II.
In August of 1944, the French coastal city of St. Malo was the location of a battle between the occupying Nazi troops and the Allied forces determined to drive out the Germans. In the city, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a 16-year-old blind girl, is home alone, hiding under her bed when the shelling begins. Across town, German army private Walter Pfennig is stationed with his radio team in the basement of the Hotel of Bees.
Doerr moves his story back and forth within a 10 year time frame. Marie-Laure was living in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the vast complex of the National Museum of Natural History. The pair fled Paris as the Occupation began, possibly carrying with them a priceless diamond steeped in legend from the museum’s collection. As a boy, Werner lived in an orphanage where he repaired a radio discarded as trash. He and his little sister would tune in to French radio broadcasts about science. Gifted with an analytical mind, Werner is drafted by the Nazis, using his skills to hunt down amateur broadcasters for the Resistance. Doerr carefully unfolds each character’s narrative as they gradually converge in St. Malo.
The center of this story might be a peerless gem, as cursed as the Hope diamond, both precious and horrifying. It might be the realization that both good and evil — or caring and callousness — can live within one heart. All the Light We Cannot See is a finely crafted work and deserves its place on The New York Times best sellers list. Readers of World War II literary fiction might also enjoy Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, a 2012 Man Booker finalist.
It’s 1938, and while San Francisco is prepping for a world’s fair and a war is percolating overseas, three young girls are focused on making it as showgirls in the city’s most exclusive Asian revue. Lisa See introduces us to Ruby, Helen and Grace in China Dolls, a captivating novel which takes readers to the dazzling and debauched world of burlesque while detailing the intricate relationships of women and the impact history and fate has on their lives and friendships.
Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen Fong lives with her extended and very traditional family in Chinatown. And Ruby Tom is stunning, independent and ambitious, but has a closely guarded secret. These three young women from diverse backgrounds find themselves competing for the same jobs, but still become fast friends sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. Everything changes with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. government sends innocent Japanese citizens to internment camps, Ruby’s true heritage is exposed and she is sent to a camp in Utah. Did one of her friends betray her secret?
Paranoia and suspicion set in, and their friendships become increasingly fragile as the war intensifies. However, bleak times demand support, and the trio always manages to find a way back to one another. Lisa See once again delivers a faultlessly researched historical saga spanning a half century. This story of female friendship, ambition and betrayal is highlighted by the magnificent milieu of Asian burlesque entertainment. The colorful details create a beautiful backdrop for sharing the life journey of these three remarkable and dynamic women.
It’s the fall of 1941 in England, and the world stands on the brink of destruction. By night, the bombs drop. By day, exhausted Londoners go about their daily business. As do a network of spies – specialists in deceit – determined to stop Hitler and all he stands for. Maggie Hope never expected to be one of them. Shattered from her undercover experiences in Berlin, she is assigned to share her expertise in the training of future SOE agents.
Britain stands alone; the United States merrily jitterbugs, packing Bundles for Britain, remaining determined to stay out of European affairs. Winston Churchill despairs that FDR will never come to England’s aid. Determined to defend the realm whatever the cost, Churchill authorizes the development of chemical weapons.
But the war is about more than the plans of politicians. It’s about the people who must make deeply personal decisions about their involvement. When a dear friend of Maggie’s is accidentally affected by the secret experiments being conducted in Scotland, Maggie must decide how far she will go to find a killer, save a friend and her country.
Meticulously researched, and based on the stories of true spies, political and military events, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is sure to please historical fiction readers as well as lovers of mystery and suspense. Susan Elia MacNeal is a master at creating the backdrop of war and the heartbreak of those involved. Readers of Jacqueline Winspear and Laura Wilson will be delighted with this latest entry in the Maggie Hope series.