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Search tags: historical-novels
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review 2017-08-01 02:11
Red Year - Jan Shapin

Rayna Prohme is a woman with a mission. Together with her husband Bill, a journalist, the couple travels to China, which is in the throes of a great, internal struggle between the Kuomintang (led by General Chiang Kai-shek) and a group of regional warlords. The nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is allied with the Kuomintang - and together, their goal is to crush the warlords and unify China under one government.

 

The time is 1927. Both Rayna and Bill are committed leftists. Rayna sees the revolution in China as a struggle for freedom that can both unify and strengthen it, much in the same way that the 1917 October Revolution (and the subsequent Russian Civil War) culminated in the creation of the Soviet Union. Rayna is in her early 30s, a redhead from Chicago, and at times rather headstrong. But that is only because she believes in the freedom struggle and in Russia's role in China. That is how she manages to make the acquaintance of Mikhail Borodin, the head of the Soviet mission. Rayna ingratiates herself with Borodin and develops a deep attachment to him. Their relationship is a rather understated one - at least that is the impression I formed about it. Rayna also strikes up a friendship and working relationship with Madame Sun, the widow of the great Chinese democrat and revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen.

 

All the while, Chiang gathers up his forces and brutally breaks the power of the warlords. In the process, the Kuomintang and Communist alliance shatters. Stalin orders the Soviet mission out of China. Rayna at this point is set on going to the Soviet Union to learn to be a fully pledged Bolshevik, which she feels will make her more useful to Borodin and to China. What next ensues in the novel makes for an interesting set of events that are both bewildering and momentous. For that reason, I would strongly urge any reader of this review to take up "RED YEAR" to get the full story, elements of which reminded me of André Malraux's novel, "Man's Fate", which was also set in China during the 1920s and has the same philosophical, revolutionary themes.

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review 2017-07-06 03:07
There Your Heart Lies: A Novel - Mary Gordon

"THERE YOUR LIFE LIES" is a generational story that seeks to bind the past with the present. As a novel, it is well-written and easily readable. But I found it difficult to make meaningful, emotional connections to Marian Taylor, a 92 year old woman living in 2009 Rhode Island with her granddaughter, Amelia, an especially sensitive 20-something, a recent UCLA graduate living amid the ebb and flow of everyday life. 

Marian had kept her past as a secret from her granddaughter, her son (deceased), and daughter-in-law (a successful architect living in Los Angeles). She had grown up in a world of wealth and privilege in a very smug, prejudiced, complacent, and snobbish Irish American Catholic family. Marian never felt a real part of that family, except with the 2 Argentinian servants her family had hired during their sojourn in Argentina and brought back to the U.S. (from them, Marian learned to speak Spanish fluently); Luigi, the family chauffeur; and her brother Johnny, a gifted musician whose homosexuality made him a pariah in the Taylor family. Tragedy ensues and Marian leaves Vassar and goes off to Spain in 1937 to serve as a nurse on the Republican side in the bloody civil war there. Spain comes to represent a complete break for Marian from her family and ultimately her past. 

Years later, in Rhode Island, Marian is compelled to come to terms with her mortality and, at the same time, with her past when Amelia one day demands to know about her beloved grandmother's origins. This revelation has long-reaching effects for both of them. In a larger sense, "THERE YOUR HEART LIES" represents a bringing together of the idealism and sacrifices made by the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War with the angst-ridden and digitally/technologically conversant present-day millennial generation. A good premise for a novel, yes. But it didn't fully resonate with me.   And so, to the neighborhood used bookstore this novel goes.

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review 2017-04-29 05:36
The Flying Circus - Susan Crandall

"THE FLYING CIRCUS" is a well-crafted, colorful and engaging novel that faithfully recaptures the spirit of the barnstorming era in America during the early 1920s. Through the lives of 3 compelling characters --- Henry Schuler, an 18 year old from Indiana with considerable mechanical skills who has had a traumatic family life; Charles Gilchrist ("Gil") a veteran First World War combat pilot now eking out a living as a barnstorming pilot with his own Curtiss 'Jenny' JN-4 U.S. Army surplus biplane; and Cora Haviland, a young woman from an affluent background whose family had fallen upon hard times who yearns to have a more adventurous life which barnstorming comes to offer her --- the reader is given entree into 3 dissimilar lives that come to be bound together in ways large and small.

This is a novel that will tug at one's heartstrings and give any reader a keen appreciation for what was a fascinating era in aviation history.

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review 2017-04-09 01:03
The Art of Love - Elizabeth Edmondson

"THE ART OF LOVE" is a novel set in the early 1930s that reads like a mystery set in an enigma. It begins in a part of London known as Bloomsbury, where a young, struggling artist (Polly Smith) is in the process of applying for a passport. A friend of hers (Oliver Fraddon) had invited her to spend the Christmas holiday with his family in their palatial estate in the South of France. But Polly, in order to facilitate the process of getting a passport, has to obtain her birth certificate. This is when she learns that she wasn't the person she had been led to believe she was by her aunt, who had been her guardian from birth.

Polly is in her early 20s, making a living in a gallery through touching up 19th and early 20th century paintings adjudged previously as mediocre or of marginal marketability into salable assets -- and painting book covers freelance for a number of publishing companies. She's also engaged to be married to Roger Harrington, a doctor from an affluent family of doctors, whose snobbishness is enough to make one gag. Polly feels herself lucky to have met him. And as for Roger, one gets the distinct impression that Polly is something he can shape into the perfect doctor's wife once he can wring out of her what he regards as a frivolous pastime - her passion for painting and for art.

Now I can understand if, judging by the novel's title, the reader of this review is inclined to look upon this book as nothing more than a love story with the usual complicating factors to make it worthwhile to read. Well, there's much more to "THE ART OF LOVE" than meets the eye. There are also 3 other interconnected stories in the novel through a number of richly drawn out characters --- such as Cynthia Harkness, a recent divorcee set on marrying her lover, the tycoon and press magnate Sir Edward Malreward who has a dark side known only to a few; her brother Max Lytton, who on the surface appears to be one of the idle rich, but in truth has continued (from WWI) serving the government as an intelligence operative on the sly, keeping tabs on people considered suspect by Whitehall; and the Fraddon family, headed by Lord Fraddon (Oliver's father) who had to leave Britain years earlier under a cloud of scandal.

"THE ART OF LOVE" shapes itself into a potboiler that slowly is brought to a boil on the French Riviera during the Yuletide with an amazing outcome to rival any Agatha Christie novel. Reading this novel was both enthralling and entertaining. It took me to a lot of interesting places and introduced me to some rather colorful characters. I recommend "THE ART OF LOVE" to anyone who loves reading novels spiced with romance, adventure, and intrigue.

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review 2017-01-12 03:19
The Haj - Leon Uris

Several years ago, I read Leon Uris' epic best-seller 'Exodus'. At that time, I had also purchased his other Middle East based novel, 'The Haj', which roughly encapsulates the same time period as covered in Exodus, albeit from the Arab perspective. But I was hesitant to begin reading it. And so, I didn't begin reading 'The Haj' until about 10 days ago.

 

'The Haj' is an epic novel centered on the lives of Haj Ibrahim al Soukouri al Wahhabi (the Muktar of Tabah) and his family. It is a story that is told through a number of voices - the land itself, formerly named Palestine from the 1880s when it was a largely barren province of the Ottoman Empire, and on into the mid-1950s following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its varied impacts on the surrounding Arab nations; and from the perspective of Haj Ibrahim's youngest son, Ishmael. Indeed, it is through Ishmael that the reader becomes witness to the life of the Arabs in Tabah, a village near Lydda and Ramle in what is today the West Bank. In Tabah, Haj Ibrahim is absolute ruler, fulfilling the role of sage, judge, and arbiter of all disputes and issues therein. And, though illiterate, Haj Ibrahim is knowledgeable about the economics of his domain through his brother Farouk (who had been fortunate enough to have been the recipient of a Christian education from missionaries, which made him both literate and skilled in accounting).

 

Up til he was 8, Ishmael (who was born in 1936, the year the Arab uprising in Palestine against British rule broke out; it would last for 3 years) was largely overlooked by his father and lived in the part of the household where his mother Hagar and the other women held sway. Ishmael and his mother were especially close. He was also close to his sister Nada (who was slightly older than him and figures prominently later in the novel). Ishmael, unlike his 3 older brothers, has a great curiosity about the world around him and develops a thirst for knowledge. He wants to learn, to be able to read and write. Whenever Ishmael tried to impress his desire for an education to Haj Ibrahim, he is treated with disdain. Haj Ibrahim sees no need for him to be educated because as the youngest son, he is expected to become a herder of goats. On the other hand, Hagar recognizes that Ishmael has a sharp mind and urges him to try to make himself useful to his father by finding out the true number of all his land holdings in Tabah. In the process of doing this, Ishmael learns that his Uncle Farouk has been pocketing some of the annual profits, and shares this knowledge with his father. At first, Haj Ibrahim is inclined to ignore his son's claims out-of-hand. But when Ishmael is able to present incontrovertible evidence of Farouk's deception, he begins to see that, perhaps, this son can be of use to him. Thus, Ishmael is allowed to attend school, where he becomes one of the best students in class.

 

The novel also explores the relationship Haj Ibrahim had with Gideon Asch, a Jewish revolutionary leader he first crosses paths with when Asch and a group of Jewish pioneers come into the area during the early 1920s to establish a kibbutz near Tabah. Though Arab and Jew are sworn enemies, the 2 men over the next 30 years develop a close, brotherly friendship that Haj Ibrahim takes considerable pains to keep unknown to his community.

 

But in the main, "The Haj" is a novel about family and how the convulsive history of the Middle East as played out over the past century affected family relationships and livelihoods. It makes for compelling and at times, heartbreaking reading. For anyone wanting to get a better understanding as to why the Middle East is what it is today, "The Haj" is a good place to start.

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