Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend

A woman with a modest past turns unlikely spy in the Galápagos in this evocative fictionalized history.

enchanted islands

Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is based on the life of a woman named Frances Conway, who lived with her husband, Ainslie, on the Galápagos Islands for several stretches in the 1930s and ’40s. Aside from her memoirs, which reveal only the day-to-day mechanics of her life, little is known about her. In Amend’s imaginative, richly detailed novel, Frances comes from a large, poor family of Polish Jewish immigrants in Duluth, Minn., where her lifelong friendship with a girl named Rosalie begins. The girls are in many ways opposites: Rosalie is from a relatively well-off family of better-established German immigrants; she is coddled, sexually precocious and selfish. As teenagers, the two run away together to Chicago, where a serious betrayal causes them to part ways.

When they reunite in middle age, Rosalie is married to a wealthy man and has a mansion filled with sweet children. Frances has recently married the tall, handsome, charismatic Ainslie Conway, but it is an arrangement orchestrated by Naval Intelligence, their shared employer. Ainslie is being sent to the Galápagos to keep an eye on suspected German spies, and Franny is part of his cover. The falsehood of their relationship pains Franny, and Ainslie has more secrets than just the nature of his profession. Still, the years on Floreana Island–one of the Islas Encantadas, as the Galápagos were once called–are the happiest of her life.

“You’re not allowed to read this–I’m not even really allowed to write it,” begins Enchanted Islands, Franny’s fictional third memoir. In her own words, she tells her life story with emotional resonance: confusion at Rosalie’s behavior as a teenager, bitterness and jealousy at her cruelties, a quiet if resentful acceptance of an unexciting life, and then exhilaration as she discovers Ainslie and stimulating new work, and rediscovers her old friend Rosalie. The narrative is colorful and sensually bursting, from the wet laundry that dominated her childhood home to the creatures and climate of Floreana, a changeable, isolated place both tropical and desert. These details are engrossing and lush, while the realities of World War II are recalled in dreamier terms; Franny is either far away on the island for much of it, or back at home in San Francisco feeling detached and lost without Ainslie. Her no-nonsense voice–by turns aggrieved, resigned, distraught, clever and wise–is the perfect foil to the fantastical nature of her life.

Amend offers strong, nuanced characters and a potent backdrop. Her prose is lovely without being overbearing, and her dialogue is impeccable, effortlessly evoking the characters’ lovable eccentricities and less lovable faults. With a wide-ranging, adventuresome plot and a humbly engaging protagonist, Enchanted Islands is a gorgeous piece of historical fiction.

This review originally ran in the May 3, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 camotes.

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos; trans. by Elizabeth Szász

This historical novel of the hard-won love of two Holocaust survivors is based on the experience of the author’s parents.

fever at dawn

Péter Gárdos’s Fever at Dawn is a novel based on the lives and love of his parents. It spans less than a year, beginning in July of 1945. In that brief time, Gárdos evokes worlds of love and pain.

Miklós is a 25-year-old Hungarian Jew, an idealistic journalist and dreamy poet, just released from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II. In the opening pages, he’s aboard a ship that will take him and 223 other survivors to Stockholm, to convalesce in Swedish hospitals under the administration of the Red Cross. In that first scene, Miklós collapses on deck. He is very ill with tuberculosis and is told he has six months to live. Undeterred, he requests from the Swedish Office of Refugees a list of women survivors who, like him, are being nursed in Sweden. He asks that they be from his region of Hungary and under 30. From his hospital bed in a “barracks-like wooden hut,” he writes 117 identical letters to these women. He gets 18 replies, and gains several pen pals, but only Lili captures his heart.

Over the next several months, Miklós and Lili correspond, exchanging stories from their past lives and their respective hospital settings hundreds of kilometers apart. Miklós asks for a picture of Lili, but is careful not to mention that he has virtually no teeth. Both make new friends: Miklós has Harry, the resident Don Juan, and a larger group of loyal comrades, while Lili has two confidantes. These secondary characters contribute to the budding romance in various ways. Fragments from the lovers’ letters supplement a narrative lively with humor and antics–at the men’s dorm in particular–as well as the continuing calamity of the war. In December, they manage to meet: Miklós travels all day for a brief visit, hoping to declare his love and be answered.

Gárdos draws this story in part from his parents’ letters, which his mother presented to him after Miklós’s death. Fever at Dawn, told in Gárdos’s first-person voice, is a sweet love story framed by horror. The war is over, but the bad news continues to trickle in. The Hungarians living in Sweden are displaced in every sense, seeking loved ones, scraping joy out of a bleak day-to-day existence. Miklós is repeatedly reminded of his six-month sentence, his time dwindling; but he is determined, after all he’s survived, to marry.

At once heartrending and lighthearted, this romance covers enormous ground in love and war, joy and tragedy, humor and pathos. Fever at Dawn, with its historical backdrop, will win over many readers.

This review originally ran in the March 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 scraps of cloth.

La Sagouine by Antonine Maillet, trans. by Wayne Grady

Humor, humility, and subtle wisdom pour from this rich translation.

Antonine Maillet (Pélagie-la-Charrette; Don l’Orignal) is perhaps best known for La Sagouine, an icon of Acadian literature, translated from the French by Wayne Grady in this new edition. In the simplest of formats, the protagonist’s voice and life story are evoked with delightful realism. La Sagouine, as she calls herself, is a singular personality.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on March 2, 2016 by ForeWord Reviews.

5 hearts

My rating: 7 poutines râpées.

Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens

This breathlessly paced, plot-driven action novel covers a wide range of historical, geographical, and emotional ground.

wolfs mouth
With Wolf’s Mouth, John Smolens offers suspense, intricate plotting, sweeping historical subjects, violence, love, and war. This impressive array of action, introspection, and international settings has something for everyone.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on March 2, 2016 by ForeWord Reviews.

5 hearts

My rating: 7 jars of pesto.

Maximum Shelf: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 24, 2016.

smokeSmoke is set in England, “a century ago, give or take,” a familiar yet strange land where, when the wicked lie, or sin in thought or deed, they release Smoke: thin, white wisps, or oily black and oozing, or yellow or green, depending on the crime. They might smoke through their mouths, or the pores of their skin. “One notices it at the shoulders first, and where the sweat has plastered the nightshirt to his skin: a black, viscous blot, no bigger than a penny. It’s like he’s bleeding ink. Then the first wisps of Smoke appear, stream from these dark little spots, leaving gritty Soot behind.” It is a remarkably convenient way to judge people. Or so it seems.

With this premise, Dan Vyleta (The Crooked Maid) introduces a world of action, intrigue and challenge. Smoke opens in a boarding school for upper-class boys, where they are taught, using the stringent and often painful methods of Discipline, to smoke no more. It is fitting of their class that they show no flaws; being without Smoke or Soot marks one for the aristocracy, and it is taken for granted that the lower classes will “show”: “[their] kind are meant to.” And the teachers always know: when a boy smokes, it leaves Soot on his clothing, which can be removed only by intensive cleaning with lye. The stain is seen in the laundry, and this evidence results in a boy being called before the Master of Smoke and Ethics–or, worse, a tribunal.

Charlie and Thomas became friends upon their first meeting, when Thomas arrived at the school at a later age than most. Charlie is the golden boy who hardly ever releases Smoke; he has money and breeding, and everyone likes him. Thomas is mysterious, and not well-liked. His Smoke is not under control, and his history involves a shame better kept hidden. Julian, the head boy, seems determined to cut him low.

At Christmas, Charlie had thought to bring his new friend home to his estimable family estate for the holiday, but the orphaned Thomas gets a surprising invitation–or is it a summons?–from an uncle he hardly remembers. The headmaster pressures Charlie to accompany Thomas, and requests a report when they return: Charlie, apparently, is to spy on Thomas’s family reunion.

All of this takes place in the first of six sections of Smoke, entitled “School.” Charlie and Thomas remain fast friends, but they will confront many new and frightening realities, and enemies, and even meet newly discovered relations–some friend, some foe. Within just a few weeks, the two schoolboys are forced to reckon with more than a schoolyard bully and the standard methods of Discipline. A lovely young woman aspires to blamelessness: her mother scornfully calls her a nun and a prude. A madman is strapped to his bed. A lady challenges the very order of their world, calling into question the role and the value of Smoke itself, aiming to recruit the Soot of the most evil men and women for a mysterious purpose. And still the plot twists, thickens, roils–dark like Smoke. To pursue truth and good, the boys, now joined by a third companion, will have to venture into the darkest of places: London, a city of criminals, dim and choking with the evidence of their wrongdoing.

Smoke is many things: a fast-racing, heart-thumping adventure tale of good and evil paced with formidable momentum; a collection of lovely characterizations; a series of questions about children and adults, passion and reason, trust and corruption; a marvelous world of mind-bending unreality that simultaneously echoes our own; a philosophical puzzle and an entertaining whirlwind of a tale. Seemingly a plot-driven novel, it nevertheless poses existential problems: If one’s Smoke is imperceptible, as in a coal mine, does one really smoke at all? Which is greater, emotion or rationality? And can one be human without Smoke?

Smoke is told from many perspectives, and as the plot continues to expand, the cast expands as well, eventually spanning social classes to include religious fanatics, compassionless scientists, imitators of virtue, good-hearted working-class misfits–and, possibly, the truly evil. Readers and characters are confronted with revelation after revelation, eventually including the very nature and meaning of Smoke. At a little over 400 pages, Smoke feels both longer and shorter than it is. It begs for a single-sitting read, such is the momentum of the plot. On the other hand, its world-building is so massive and engrossing that the experience feels much larger than a mere novel. Indeed, the scope of what began as a story of individual people and a fantastical premise swells into something both larger than life and intrinsic to life itself.

For moralists, or those who question them; for those pondering the difference between good and evil, or whether such a dichotomy even exists; and, especially, for readers who appreciate a wild and large-scale story of action, adventure, risk and destiny: Smoke will entertain and provoke thought. Thinking and feeling readers alike will be left wanting more.

Rating: 9 sweets.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vyleta.

Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling

Classic Greek myths starring Herakles, Theseus and more are reborn in vivid, funny, fresh forms.


From his home in a hillside Peloponnesian village, John Spurling (The Ten Thousand Things) charmingly retells some of Western literature’s best-known stories. He balances careful attention to the originals with his own humorous voice, honoring well-loved classics with a fresh eye.

Each section focuses on a hero: Perseus, Herakles, Apollo, Theseus and the ill-fated Agamemnon. Chapters begin and end with Spurling’s own Arcadian vista, on the Gulf of Argos, which inspires his imagination. Through these lenses, Arcadian Nights (re)familiarizes readers with the curse on the House of Atreus, the Twelve Labors and the complexly intertwining genealogies of mortals and immortals in a storied era somewhere between history and myth. Spurling notes commonalities with other cultures’ and religions’ fables, and infuses the established legends with added detail: imagined dialogue lends well-known characters extra personality, and Herakles gets a perfectly apt new piece of apparel. The occasional modernization enlivens the tales, as when the newly dead line up to cross the River Styx into Hades–it “was a little like going through security in an airport today”–but this is no clumsy 21st-century resetting of Aeschylus. Rather, Spurling’s gentle, clever wit complements the originals’ themes of heroism and romance, and their reminders of the importance of hospitality, humility and memory.

Spurling’s passion and enthusiasm and the best of Greek myth shine through this new version, equally appropriate to introduce new readers or reinvigorate the appetite of those who already honor such names as Zeus, Achilles, Athena, Poseidon and more.

This review originally ran in the February 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 golden apples.

Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

Following World War I, a German American family in the Iowa plains faces the usual deprivations of farm life compounded by wartime prejudice and the mysterious disappearance of two children.


In Bottomland, Michelle Hoover (The Quickening) tells the story of an immigrant family’s experience in the Midwestern plains with empathy, understanding and an eye for detail.

Julius and Margrit Hess arrived in Iowa in the 1890s, determined to make their bottomland there support a family. Four daughters, two sons and years later, the story opens with Nan, the eldest child, straining to hold her household together following Margrit’s death. The two youngest girls, Esther and Myrle, have disappeared in the night, from behind locked doors, leaving no note or sign of struggle. In the anti-German frenzy of World War I, the neighbors and townspeople began to harass the Hesses, and good relations have never been established since. Nan and her siblings fear that this local animosity has finally culminated in the fate of the two girls. How does a family negotiate such a loss? “Deaths are commonplace. But a disappearance–it has the scent of murder in it.” The Hesses are now only Nan; her bitter and gnarled brother Ray and his wife, Patricia; brother Lee, well-meaning but easily confused; quietly supportive sister Agnes; and near-silent Father, who ceased his full participation in life when Mother died. They search for Esther and Myrle across the countryside and even as far as Chicago, the city that “sounded like spitting.”

Bottomland is told in alternating first-person perspectives. Nan has sacrificed to keep the Hess family fed and in one piece. Julius brought his wife to a dusty claim, with a dugout to sleep in, to start a family. Lee, the younger and larger of the two boys, was always a little slow, but his injury in the war did him further harm. And finally there are the perspectives of Esther, the unruly child, and then the baby, Myrle. These are the personalities most revealed in the novel, and each of the Hesses is developed expertly, each dealing differently with the rock-hard and dirt-poor life they lead, with the prejudices of their neighbors, and of course with the missing girls, empty seats at the table and the question of food for the winter: “Hope, it was a terrible expense. We couldn’t let anything go to waste. And we couldn’t risk the extra we might set side only to spoil” if the girls did not return.

Hoover offers a lovely feat of exposition, bringing to life the immigrant experience, the hard work of homesteading, the deprivations and bigotries of the war years, and the workings of family, how its members cope and hold onto one another. Bottomland covers a large terrain, with characters who feel warm and close. Readers will be drawn in, and moved.

This review originally ran in the February 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 accidents.

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