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Wendy Robards has commented on (54) products.

By Fire, by Water by Mitchell Kaplan
By Fire, by Water

Wendy Robards, July 12, 2010

Mitchell James Kaplan’s debut novel is set in fifteenth century Spain during the time of the New Inquisition when King Fernando and Queen Ysabel were waging war and expelling all Jews from Spain. This period is also remembered for Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and his discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Kaplan has taken all of these events and created an historical novel of depth, passion and faith which held me spellbound.

Luis de Santangel, a converso (the Spanish term which designates a person whose parents or grandparents abandoned their Jewish faith and embraced Christianity…usually under duress) and chancellor to the throne, takes center stage in By Fire, By Water. Horrified by what the Inquisition is doing, Luis finds himself deeply conflicted by his Christian faith. He longs to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian beliefs. This struggle leads him to engage in secret meetings with a Jewish scribe and several others to learn more about the faith his family abandoned.

When a close friend is arrested and dies, Luis becomes enraged at a system that punishes those who dare question the edicts and beliefs of the Church. His choice to silence the Chief Inquisitor of Aragon (Pedro de Arbues) puts his life and the lives of his family in danger.

A parallel story – that of a Jewish silversmith who is raising her orphaned nephew in the endangered city of Granada – is seamlessly inserted into the novel. Judith Migdal is a strong, inspiring character…and it is no surprise when her path crosses Luis’ as the Spanish war machine grinds ever closer to her home.

By Fire, By Water closely follows the historical record, but it is also very much a novel…bringing to life the streets of fifteenth century Spain, the horrors of the Inquisition (Kaplan does not spare readers the brutal torture endured by those arrested), and the drama of the time period when new lands were being discovered by sea exploration.

Big, passionate, brilliantly written, full of court intrigue and religious politics, I loved this novel. I read the last half of the book in one afternoon, unable to lay it aside until I knew what would happen. Kaplan’s descriptions are gorgeous. He effortlessly transports the reader into the past. He also brings forth the questions of the time: What were the motivations of King Fernando and Queen Ysabel? Were they simply religious fanatics, or were financial considerations the primary reason for supporting the Inquisition and the ultimate expulsion of the Jews from Spain?

Kaplan writes in his author’s note at the end of the book:

"The purpose of a historical novel is to locate and reveal the dramatic core of history."

If that is the purpose, then I would congratulate Kaplan on achieving it. By Fire, By Water is a must read for historical fiction fans, especially those interested in fifteenth century Spain.

Highly recommended.
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Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton
Impatient with Desire

Wendy Robards, April 16, 2010

The story of the Donner Party is well known – a group of 87 pioneers set out for California by wagon train in 1846, but became stranded in the Sierra Nevada, high in the mountains near Truckee, California. Their decision to take a new cut-off (called the Hastings cutoff) delayed their passage west and an early snowfall trapped them in the desolate wilderness just shy of their goal. Forced to spend more than four months in the wilderness, all but 48 perished from starvation and illness. Several survivors resorted to cannibalism after they ran out of oxen and buffalo hides to eat.

Although many have written of the Donner Party and created websites specifically about the ill-fated journey, few have attempted to create an historical novel focused on any of the individuals. Gabrielle Burton has imagined letters and journal entries written by Tamsen Donner and written Impatient With Desire – a novel focused on the Donner family themselves (including their five children) and narrated by Tamsen.

'The novel focuses on one family, George and Tamsen Donner and their five daughters, with the hope that the reader will understand other pioneers through them. The voice is that of Tamsen Donner, a heroine I chanced upon in the early 1970s while writing an apprentice novel about an unrelated subject.' - from the Author’s Note about Impatient with Desire, page 237 of the ARE -

Burton’s novel is nonlinear in nature – first placing the reader with the stranded and desperate party, and then moving back and forth in time to give information about not only the journey itself, but the history of the characters prior to their decision to move west. Tamsen’s voice is clear and compelling – heard through her letters to her sister Betsy as well as through the imagined journal entries. Burton brings to life a woman who yearned to see what had not yet been seen, an explorer who could not silence the wanderlust within herself. The risks of moving across a country which had been mostly uncharted were great – Indian attacks, accidents, illness…and for the Donner Party, the unpredictable weather and a new trail which took them through the rugged and nearly impassable Wasatch Mountain range.

Burton successfully captures the plight of the pioneers through Tamsen’s voice.

'In the beginning of course we were on ground level, but now we are underground inside walls of snow. We’re not sure how much snow has fallen – twenty feet? – but from the poles Jean Baptiste thrusts into the ground, we estimate the snowpack at twelve feet.' - from the ARE of Impatient with Desire, page 99 -

This novel is less about the facts of the Donner Party journey (although those are there), but more about the people who experienced it – specifically, the women who made the journey. By focusing on letters and journal entries, Burton has provided the opportunity for readers to understand the possible thoughts and emotions of the pioneers who headed west in search of adventure and land. The novel gives insight into the dreams of those who paved the way for future generations.

Impatient with Desire does not spare its readers the desperation of its characters. At times it is hard to read as Tamsen records the deaths of each person in her Bible. Those who know the history behind the novel cannot help but dread the death of George, Tamsen’s husband who shared her dreams. But despite the sadness behind the novel, it was also an exhilarating read. I was left feeling tremendous respect and awe for those individuals who had the courage and fortitude to strike out into the wilderness, knowing the risks, but believing in a better life for themselves and their families.

Readers who love historical fiction and who are interested especially in the women of history, will enjoy Impatient with Desire. Richly imagined and heartbreaking, this is a novel I can recommend.
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The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
The Lotus Eaters

Wendy Robards, April 12, 2010

Helen Adams is an American photojournalist who arrives in Vietnam in 1967 as a scared, inexperienced freelance photographer. A woman reporter in Vietnam is not met with enthusiasm, especially from the men who make up the news corp and the soldiers in the field. Helen is expected to cover the human interest aspects of the Vietnam War, but instead she connects with Sam Darrow – a veteran reporter with a Pulitzer prize under his belt – and convinces him to take her into the field. She continues to position herself for combat coverage even when Darrow no longer seems willing to help her. Eventually, Helen overcomes the doubts of others and secures her place among the men…but there is a price to pay which Helen never anticipated.

The Lotus Eaters is part action-thriller, and part love story as Helen finds herself torn between two men – Sam Darrow (who is most at home in the middle of a war), and Linh (a Vietnamese poet who mourns the loss of his country). It is also a story about identity and love of country, about the horror of war and about what makes us human.

The novel begins in 1975 in Saigon as frightened South Vietnamese citizens and Americans attempt to flee the city in front of the North Vietnamese takeover. Fast-paced, tense and graphic…the first forty pages had me glued to my seat. Soli takes no time to develop a sense of place and history with her characters driving the narrative. I was immediately hooked, and I wanted some back story on Helen and Linh. Soli did not disappoint. She sets the stage, then takes the reader back to the mid-sixties when Helen first arrives in Vietnam. From there, the story moves forward.

Soli writes with authority and takes the reader inside the minds and hearts of her tightly drawn characters. The war scenes, including devastated villages and patrols through the jungle, capture the emotion of war. But, what is remarkable about Soli’s writing in The Lotus Eaters is not the story of war but the story of a country and its people, and the definition of “home.” Despite the burned out fields, Soli manages to also capture the beauty of Vietnam as Helen grows to love the country.

This is a mesmerizing novel on all levels. The Lotus Eaters is haunting, evocative and marvelously written. Helen’s growth as a character found me empathizing with her and fearing for her safety. But it was the character of Linh who really captured my heart – a man who loses family and country, and yet still finds the poetry in life.

In case you have not yet figured it out, this is a novel which I can highly recommend…especially for readers interested in the Vietnam War era. Unlike many novels which cover this unpopular war, Soli focuses not on the politics, but on the people most impacted…and it is that which makes The Lotus Eaters unique.
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Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Finding Nouf

Wendy Robards, July 25, 2009

Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide, is hired by the Shrawi family to locate a family member who has disappeared. Nouf, only sixteen years old and planning her wedding, appears to have run away into the desert. But when her body is found in a wadi and the coroner reveals her cause of death as drowning, disturbing questions arise. Nayir joins forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner’s office who is like no woman he has ever met. Together they begin to piece together Nouf’s last days and hours to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.

Finding Nouf is at its heart a mystery, but it is also more than this. Set in modern Saudi Arabia, the novel explores the role of women in a gender-segregated society which clings to its history while at the same time must address the changing views of the women it seeks to control and protect. Nayir is a devote man who prays regularly and wishes to follow the laws of Allah; but he is also a bachelor who fantasizes of one day finding a woman with whom he can share his life.

Nayir’s conflicted feelings provide the tension in the book. At first I disliked Nayir, finding him rigidly pious and chauvinistic. Ferraris does a remarkable job turning Nayir from a largely distasteful character to one the reader begins to respect. It is Nayir’s growth as a man (who comes to see women as human beings with dreams, desires and individual strengths) which elevates the novel to more than a simple whodunnit.

Katya represents the modern Saudi woman – a woman who has her own job and dares to speak to men not related to her. It is through her that the reader begins to gain a deeper understanding of Nouf – a teenager from a wealthy family who yearns for freedom.

Zoe Ferraris once lived in Saudi Arabia during the time following the first Gulf War. At that time, she was married to a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin and was exposed to a culture largely closed to Americans. Knowing this about the author gave me respect for the perspective of this novel which although seen mostly through the eyes of the lead male character, exposes the dreams and desires of women living in a paternalistic society.

Ferraris’ writing is clean and riveting. The core mystery (what actually happened to Nouf) has many twists and turns which kept me guessing right to the end. This is a novel I would classify as “literary mystery” as its focus is as much on its main characters (and their growth) as on the mystery which propels the story.

Readers who enjoy a good mystery, as well as literary fiction, will enjoy this look inside the Saudi culture.

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Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Between Here and April

Wendy Robards, July 21, 2009

Elizabeth Burns, a journalist who has given up traveling the world to cover war stories in order to be there for her two children, begins suffering blackouts one day. When medical tests show there is no physical reason for her fainting spells, Elizabeth seeks psychiatric help. What she discovers is a long buried memory of the disappearance of her best friend April when she was six years old. Driven to seek out the truth, Elizabeth begins to research her April’s disappearance and uncovers a horrible truth – the disappearance was actually a murder committed by the girl’s own mother. Elizabeth’s journey to uncover the truth and understand the mind of a woman who would kill her own child opens a floodgate of unresolved issues for Elizabeth – a failing marriage, a brutal gang rape, and questions of her own ability to mother.

Between Here and April is a novel which reaches into the dark recesses of the human mind and looks at one of the most difficult to understand crimes: filicide. Deborah Copaken Kogan brings to the novel her own background of journalism (she is the author of the bestselling memoir Shutterbabe which explored her life as a war photographer), and a history which includes a murdered childhood friend. In mining her own experiences, Kogan brings to her writing an honesty and clarity that transforms the novel into something that feels like a true crime story.

Between Here and April is provocative, tough to read and at times uncomfortable as it explores the subjects of sexual perversity, rape, child abuse, discrimination against women, and the unrelenting demands placed on mothers. Filicide is a crime which is almost unspeakable – and yet Cogan takes this topic head-on and seeks to find empathy for the woman who would be driven to commit such an act.

Cogan’s writing is sharp, intuitive and hypnotic. I always enjoy novels written by journalists who have honed their writing skills to get to the core of the story quickly, and who know how to create tension and conflict between characters. This is not a book for everyone. Many readers will be disturbed by the images Cogan creates. The subject matter will turn many readers off. But, those readers willing to follow Cogan into the darkness will be rewarded with a story not soon forgotten.

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