Fiction from Ethiopia

Been meaning to add this here:

From a blog I follow: semper aliquid novi africam adferre, – a post with A link to an article from The Guardian listing new fiction from Ethiopia.

Two novels and a memoir – all three set in 20th Century Ethiopia from the late 1950s through late 1970s.

I know it’s a stretch to call it “historical” fiction, but so much has changed since these events, what could be better than fiction written by the people who lived through the period?

Also, at the bottom of that Guardian article – you can find links to other non-western Algeria, Sudan, Haiti and China.

Clicking those links will bring you to yet other lists, many of them including historical fiction offerings.

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Thoughts on Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

As promised in my comments on Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I have now completed his The Garden of Evening Mists. How could I resist a story set in a Cameron Highlands tea plantation? As usual, this is not a formal review, just some observations. If, like me, you prefer to know little about a book before diving in, you might do best to leave this post until after you’ve had a go at it yourself. Yes, that is a recommendation – read it – for both story and art. This one is going to stick with me for a long time.

Now to the observations:

Overall, I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists much more than The Gift of Rain. Having read The Gift of Rain, my expectations were more in line with Mr. Eng’s work. I knew what I was getting into so I was more prepared to appreciate it and chose to read it when I was ready for it. The first half of the book is slow going but, in the second half, the layers build towards a complexity which begins to pay off.

Language – Mr. Eng’s use of poetic speech is so dense that it sometimes overwhelms the writing. These are from the first page:

  • He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise..
  • …that rain-scratched morning…
  • Memories…like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
  • The murmurings of the house…

Most of Mr. Eng’s figurative language is stunning and seamless. It supports the dream-like atmosphere, the story of muddled memories and the gradual revelations as truth emerges. There is the occasional clunker that feels forced, drawing attention to the language rather than keeping you in the story world. But if you want to see how metaphorical writing is done, how to steep your reader’s entire sensory system into another world, I highly recommend studying Mr. Eng’s work.

Structure – The story is framed in 1st person present tense narration over a two-week period, but the bulk of the book is in 1st person past tense as the narrator reveals prior events in her life. In fact, there are three major time periods in the book: the narrator’s experience during WWII, her experiences after the war as she met and worked with her Japanese gardener/mentor, and the present as she copes with her new circumstances – all the while discovering new information about her past.

The change of tense is helpful to keep the present and past time periods separated, but I still found it challenging to know which period I was in because the locations and characters overlap. I often had to stop and remind myself of what period I was reading in order to keep things straight in my head.

There are stories within stories which add to the mystery but also contribute to the complexity of the text. By the end of the book the story is so layered I had to stop many times and think about what each new piece of information meant to the narrative; how it fit into the larger story. Every bit is important and comes together in the end but I now feel the need to go back to the beginning and at least skim through the book again in order to fully appreciate each part of the puzzle – the way you might want to re-watch a mystery movie to make sense of how each clue plays a part in the whole.

Story – I found The Garden of Evening Mists more palatable than The Gift of Rain on several levels:

  • Personal interest: Japanese gardens, archery, art & tea are much more appealing to me as a context than Japanese martial arts. I also enjoyed the smattering of Malaysian language throughout the text since I have retained at least that much of my Bahasa Indonesia reading skills. Since I know the words, I didn’t need the context or the clarifications provided by Mr. Eng but I doubt anyone would be confused by them. He also scatters some Dutch vocabulary throughout – and I don’t know a word of it but had no problem making sense of them in context. I think this book would be a good example of how non-English words can flavor a text without confusing or irritating the reader.
  • Characters: I still long for a story from the ethnic Malay experience, but this book felt more rooted in the land than The Gift of Rain. However, that book’s main character was half Straits Chinese and half English and, I believe, a large part of his vulnerability to the Japanese mentor was his own rootlessness. I had a difficult time being sympathetic to the main character in The Gift of Rain because I found his manipulative Japanese mentor repulsive. In The Garden of Evening Mists, I found all of the characters interesting and sympathetic even when I was led to conclude they were not all perfectly honorable.

Similarities to The Gift of Rain Both stories revolve around an enigmatic Japanese master of something (martial arts, gardening, art) and their devastating allure to a young, vulnerable Malaya national within the context or fallout of the brutal Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what it is that draws Mr. Eng to elevate Japanese culture to this level of mystique within the hearts of the very people who were so abused by the Japanese atrocities. He seems fixated on the irony that the same culture, same individuals even, could produce such beauty while also committing such horrors on their fellow man.

But maybe that’s the point. What culture is not capable of great beauty and great savagery?

You can see reviews of The Garden of Evening Mist here and here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

Thoughts on Colin Falconer’s Silk Road

Silk Road - Colin Falconer

WARNING: SPOILERS

Modern Sensibilities: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is balancing the values of the reader with the worldview of characters from a distant time/place. The writer must provide the modern audience with someone to identify with even when the context is wholly other.

Colin Falconer’s Silk Road spans the swath of geography from the Holy Land to Central Asia in 1260 AD. Writing from this distance in time and culture presents a greater than usual challenge to bridge the gap between story context and the reader.

Falconer does this by creating a female character, Khutelun, with the skills, spunk and father’s indulgence to have the freedom to live as a man – allowing for adventures and encouraging her natural leadership. This is believable because we know that Mongol women did have more clout than their western sisters at the time.

Falconer also creates a main character, Josseran Sarrazini, a Templar knight, who begins to question his Christian heritage. And, William, a Dominican friar, who represents every despicable characteristic of religious fanatics. This juxtaposition of an open-minded man who finally casts off all faith and the Evil EthnocentricCleric who never changes, seems crafted to appeal to the modern reader’s freedom of thought and to encourage the gleeful derision of all things terrible about organized religion.

I have two problems:

1) The drastic final action of the Templar doesn’t ring true. Of course, as a believer, I would say this. But I also assert so as an intelligent reader. In 1260 AD, the act of completely turning one’s back on faith, and doing what he finally does, would have been terrifying. (And I won’t even tell you what he finally does as it would be an extreme spoiler.)

Of course, it is the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it felt like a wink at the politically correct modern world.

2) Meanwhile, William, the Despicable Cleric, never learns, never grows. I admit there were moments when Falconer tried hard to humanize him; make us think William might improve, if only a little. Was that an attempt to forestall criticism of caricature? Or provide an honest picture of personal enigma? In the end, this character goes nowhere.

Again, it’s the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it was tiresome. Okay, we get it – Evil Monk. Been Done To Death.

More Nit-Picking:

The book is slow at times if you want all action. But if you are reading Silk Road because of an interest in the region, you’ll enjoy the descriptions even if you find yourself skimming through some of it as I did.

And, the editing is appalling. How did this happen?

On the Other Hand:

Despite my complaints, Colin Falconer has a new fan. He is a wonderful storyteller and I will definitely read more of his work. I crave well researched high adventure stories in places beyond the standard fare. This is the kind of book I love. This is the kind of book I want to write. I will forgive all for more of this. Falconer sweeps you along on roads far beyond the beaten path and immerses you into another world.

The good news is: Colin Falconer has written 40+ books. I will look for others set in times/places that appeal to me. Lot’s to choose from. It will be interesting to compare the story and editing qualities of subsequent reads with my Silk Road experience.

In the meantime, I hope Mr. Falconer will slow down enough to do some serious quality control on the editing. Maybe his production schedule is coming at too great a sacrifice.

Recommended: For action & adventure set in far off lands

Amazon reviews here.

Goodreads Reviews here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

Reading Response: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Pomegranate Flowers

While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.

I am always excited to read a tale from Long Ago & Far Away. Unfortunately, this one was a struggle.

SPOILER ALERT!

For the first half of the book, it was difficult to know which character was the protagonist. Most of this portion is back story, or story within story. Who am I supposed to care about? I nearly put it down but hung in there because of what I had already invested. I love books set in other cultures and I accept that the target audience might be more accustom to the slower pace. So, thinking it could just be me, and not wanting to miss out, I slogged on.

Then things got more interesting and focused on two characters.

Then everyone died.

Except one fellow.

And the whole thing felt like a setup for the next phase of his life. A sequel?

The book is part of the Islam Quintet – a series by Mr. Ali. But the next book is not a sequel. It’s a story about Saladin – who is not a part of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As far as I can tell, we don’t ever get back to this story.

The problem is structure and focus. I love the idea of the book, but it meanders and then ends. Clearly Mr. Ali wants us to care about the loss of a centuries-old culture. But it’s the lives of people which draw readers in and I couldn’t care about anyone because the story is everywhere at once and therefore emotionally nowhere.

I wanted so much to love it. I may be willing to try the others in the series simply because I want them to be good.

You can read Amazon reviews here.

And Goodread reviews here.

Strange Gods – Annamaria Alfieri

Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri

Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri

I recently enjoyed Annamaria Alfieri’s latest historical murder mystery: Strange Gods.

Set in 1911 British East Africa, a murder entangles a cross-section of expatriate and local characters into a complex but well constructed whodunit. And we get a love story as a bonus. Beyond the murder mystery and romance, Ms. Alfieri also illustrates the consequences of universal social ills and the challenges of those who must navigate through them.

I will leave the specifics for you to discover since I do not wish to slip into spoilers.

But, if you ask me, this book cries out to be expanded to film. Think of the scenery! The costumes! The culture and character contrasts! The discovery of dark secrets and passions! This could be both grand entertainment and worthy of critical acclaim.

Wouldn’t it be great to see some serious money poured into this project rather than another Transformers rehash?

Dare we hope?

When Ms. Alfieri has a break in her book promotion schedule and writing her next tale, maybe we can get her back here for another interview.

Have you read Strange Gods yet? Do you have any questions you would like me to ask of her? What do you think about putting it on the big screen?

In the meantime, I am observing certain recurring themes in my Long Ago & Far Away reading. I will explore those in a near-future post.

More From Ancient Egypt: Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile

Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.

Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.

I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.

I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.

Three areas of particular note:

1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.

And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.

2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.

3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.

I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?

Lily of the Nile: Recommended

If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:

Goodreads

Amazon

I do plan to read Stephanie Dray’s next Cleopatra’s Daughter installment Song of the Nile.

But next up here is: Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri – Historical Mystery set in early 20th Century East Africa!

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.