Writing non-fiction book reviews for the Historical Novel Society, I’ve discovered places, periods, and people I would not have encountered without the luck of assignment.
In Donovan’s Devils—OSS Commandos Behind Enemy Lines, accompanied by WWII fighters waging a clandestine war of liberation, I revisited familiar Italian villages a dozen years before my birth.
Albert Lulushi meticulously deployed his deeply researched facts to detail every raid: places, times, boat names—even the weather. Officers and soldiers were listed by name and rank, if not serial number. Missing from the heroes’ roll call was their personality, the humanity that allows us to connect with others. I treasured the occasional passage that transformed characters into people, such as:
“Lieutenant George Musulin was the natural choice to command the team. He was born in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Yugoslavia and spoke Serbo-Croat very well. A bulky, 250-pound, five-foot-eleven former University of Pittsburg tackle, steelworker, and physical education teacher, Musulin was far heavier than the 185 pounds that was the official limit for Army paratroopers.” (228)
Adding flesh to characters—in George’s case, kilos of flesh—gives them a past that allows readers to care about their future.
Lulushi writes of men we need to remember. I wish he had given us more to remember them by.
Read my online review of Donovan’s Devils at the Historical Novel Society.
After reading my reviews friends often ask, “but—did you like the book?” Generally, I shrug their questions off. It’s not my job to like or dislike a book. I believe good reviews provide enough information for the reader to decide if they will like the book. I’ve already read it—at least four times.
If I’m truly unhappy with some aspect of the work, I may slip in a hint that the book wasn’t my favorite: “others may like,” “not to everyone’s taste,” or “too much of a good thing.”
Fortunately, there was no need for code phrases about A Fine Imitation. Although it shares the New York setting and 1920s period, Amber Brock’s debut novel is not the next The Great Gatsby, but it is an excellent summer read for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic.
Read my full review of A Fine Imitation published in the Historical Novel Society‘s May 2016 Historical Novels Review.
Most of the books I review for the Historical Novel Society have little word of mouth. An unknown gem, I predict, each time I tear open the manila mailer, hoping to find the next best seller.
And then there was the time my envelope yielded At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, And Apricot Cocktails. Four dour characters commanded the cover—the men smoking and only the woman making eye contact with her reader. This one’s a loser, I concluded, unless the recipe for apricot cocktails is truly intoxicating.
Soon, my “loser” book began to taunt my flip condemnation. A full page ad in the New York Times was followed by a solid review. The Guardian joined in with a glowing analysis. The LA Times celebrated that “the existentialists come alive (over cocktails.)” Amazon.com flagged the book as the #1 Best Seller in Philosopher Biographies (admittedly a thin category.) Even the Historical Novel Society published a feature review describing Sarah Bakewell’s work as “admirable.”
So, did I agree with the experts? Read my review from the May issue of the Historical Novels Review and find out.
I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.
Sometimes a book doesn’t click with the Historical Novel Society’s volunteer reviewers. Maybe the period or place didn’t sync, the descriptive blurb wasn’t engaging, or the stars weren’t aligned that day.
Faced with an embarrassed book rocking from cover to cover, avoiding eye contact, trying to hide behind a computer monitor, the review editors will send out a plea, “This novel seems friendly. It wants to please. Will someone give this book a chance?”
I gave Playing Custer by Gerald Duff a chance and didn’t regret it for a moment. Set simultaneously in 1876 and 2001, Playing Custer is a collection of fictional monologues by those who lived and died at the Battle of The Little Bighorn and their twenty-first century reenactors.
If Western history is your thing, if you want to to know what Custer might have been thinking that afternoon in June, or if you’re a monologue junkie as I am, give Playing Custer a chance—and then send me a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My full review: Playing Custer by Gerald Duff, Historical Novel Society Review
Anthony Marra‘s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won multiple awards including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award.
In late 2015, Marra released an equally award-worthy collection of short stories: The Tsar of Love and Techno.
I recently studied Marra’s latest to understand his disjointed timeline and slow character reveals: The Tsar of Love and Techno – Character Introductions.
While my craft analysis may not appeal to all readers, I recommend The Tsar of Love and Techno to all for its language, structure, insights into the Soviet era, and the reverberations of personal decisions through generations. Presented across decades and in multiple voices, the collection flows with the easy digressions one might experience in a long evening’s conversation with a friend.
Please share your thoughts on Marra’s work below. Criticism is as welcome as compliments.
The Axeman is based on an intriguing historical fact…a jazz-loving serial murderer was afoot in 1918-1919 New Orleans. The novel follows fictional former friends, a detective and and the mentor he sent to prison, as they compete to find the killer first.
Unfortunately, the author complicates an otherwise solid and colorful story by imaging New Orleans native Louis Armstrong as a part-time detective supporting his gal pal, a wannabe Pinkerton agent also in search of the Axeman.
My full review appears in the Historical Novel Society’s February 2016 update.
I’m delighted to announce that the Winter 2015 issue of One Thousand Words is now available for Kindle Fire and the Kindle App at Amazon.com!
In One Thousand Words, four talented—and brief—authors share 250-word stories inspired by a single photograph. Literally, one picture equals one thousand words.
An early reader called our Winter 2015 Café issue “a decadent chocolate truffle, every word well thought-out and intentioned.”
The Café stories are short enough to read on your phone while waiting for your caffé mocha or between subway stops. Although the prose is slim, the characters linger.
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