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Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

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 June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

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Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 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 fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.

A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey

One of the four churchwomen murdered in 1980 El Salvador is honored with a detailed biography.

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In 1980, four United States churchwomen in El Salvador were raped and murdered by members of the U.S.-trained National Guard, calling into question U.S. support for the right-wing military dictatorship and leading to several high-level and international investigations. The four were treated as symbols and martyrs; journalist Eileen Markey wanted to make them individuals again. A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura pursues that goal by examining the life of Maura Clarke.

Markey follows Maura from a close-knit Irish Catholic family in Rockaway, N.Y., to a Maryknoll convent at 19 in 1950, part of a staunchly anti-communist Catholic Church. Maura served in the Bronx, and then for 17 years in Nicaragua, where she was horrified by poverty and want. She gradually experienced a massive transformation of worldview, eventually becoming an outspoken activist, even as Markey outlines a parallel if gentler shift at the Church’s highest levels. When assigned to El Salvador, Maura worked a few short months before her murder.

A Radical Faith is not an objective inquiry: it assumes that Maura had few flaws and that missionary work in cultures abroad is good work. Markey nevertheless powerfully establishes Maura as an individual, and animates the story of her death. Her work brings an extraordinary level of detail, from Maura’s own journals and correspondence as well as redacted government documents, to a decades-old crime with higher-level instigators who have not been brought to justice. Though not impartial, A Radical Faith is a carefully researched and flattering portrait, moving and evocative.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 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: 6 flights.

Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton

This personal history of Canada’s craft beer movement, from a distinctive and accomplished participant, amuses as well as instructs.

brewing-revolution

Books on craft beer and the craft beer movement abound, and readers may feel underwhelmed at the prospect of another. But Frank Appleton’s memoir, Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement, is different. For one, his focus is on British Columbia, rather than the much-discussed scene in the United States. And Appleton’s unapologetic, lively personality communicates a story both personal and national, even global, in scope. Brewing Revolution also expands into an impassioned indictment of mass-market adjunct lagers, as well as a manual for the next generation of brewers.

Appleton, a native of Manchester, England, applied his studies in microbiology to food science and later, after immigrating to Vancouver, B.C., to brewing. His science background, appetite for innovation and uncompromising insistence on quality in food and drink led him through an unplanned but inspired career. He began in one of Canada’s “Big Three” brewing conglomerates, where he developed a scorn for adjunct ingredients (or “added junk”) like corn, rice and corn syrup, where traditional, quality brews use only malted grains like barley.

Retiring in frustration to a cabin in the woods, he learns that an article he’d written comparing adjunct lagers with “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” and calling for a do-it-yourself response, has drawn the attention of an ambitious pub owner. From there, Appleton’s career as a consultant begins. After helping to open the first craft brewery in Canada–which required lobbying for a change in legislation–he consults on the design and launches of dozens of new breweries in Canada, several in the United States and one in France. Along the way, he trains new brewers, invents new equipment and creatively tackles problems in brewing-related architecture, physics, sanitation, welding, human resources and more.

While Appleton is occasionally acerbic in railing against brewing practices and certain former employers, he stops short of bitterness. This distinctive voice may be off-putting for some, but his readers will likely share his disdain for adjuncts and his passion for the details of malt, hops, yeast and water. Enjoying the irreverence of Appleton’s fervent campaigning, craft beer fans will find his character amusing, quirky and sympathetic.

Brewing Revolution tells the story of a country’s craft beer movement and of the author’s life work, but it doesn’t stop there. In his enthusiasm, Appleton can’t help but offer troubleshooting advice for ambitious brewers, and a healthy review of brewing techniques, including the niceties of equipment, yeast cultivation and malting. Humorous asides include Appleton’s dodging of U.S. customs agents and his exasperation with the hired help in Lyon, France. As a history of a movement and a personal memoir brimming with zeal, Brewing Revolution is educational, entertaining and, perhaps most of all, thirst-inducing.


This review originally ran in the November 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 liters.

Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

This photographic survey of trailblazing female athletes through history celebrates a diverse range of inspirational talents.

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Molly Schiot created the Instagram account @theunsungheroines to celebrate pioneering female athletes the world has scarcely heard of. Game Changers expands that concept: a collection of historic photos Schiot found in libraries and archives, paired with short narratives of a page or less, tell the stories of groundbreaking and little-known female athletes.

The women featured here include some better-known names like Kathrine Switzer, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Nadia Comăneci. These are joined by early mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, powerboat racer Betty Cook, judo champion (and mother to Ronda Rousey) AnnMaria De Mars, the “Sea Women” of the Korean island of Jeju and many more: boxers, billiard players, swimmers, skateboarders, players of team sports, Olympians, referees and umpires, sports journalists, coaches and policy makers (for example, the legislators behind Title IX). While women from the United States dominate these pages, every continent is represented except Antarctica. Women of color and those of non-binary genders are given special consideration as well. Among the strange and wonderful, don’t miss the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail’s entire length in one season: she was 67 years old at the time.

These stories are brief but breathtaking. Not only athletes, these women were often activists and advocates as well as accomplished in business and the arts. Their photographs, naturally, speak volumes on their own. To be read in small pieces or cover-to-cover, Game Changers is an obviously indispensable choice for athletes, fans, parents or anyone else stirred by courage, talent and determination.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 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: 6 balls.

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Chinese immigrants to Mississippi challenged school segregation a generation before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

water tossing boulders

Thirty years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision made school segregation unconstitutional, a case originated in small-town Mississippi to challenge the same injustices. Journalist Adrienne Berard’s Water Tossing Boulders reveals the little-known experience of the Mississippi Delta Chinese population, including the Lum family, whose two daughters were sent home from the local white school they attended in Rosedale, Miss. The resulting case, Gong Lum v. Rice (1924), made it as far as the United States Supreme Court, but failed.

Berard has done rigorous research, as detailed in her author’s note, and offers a storytelling style with momentum. She expertly evokes her characters. Jeu Gong Lum and his wife, Katherine Wong, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the Delta; their daughters had divergent personalities, Berda rebellious and Martha an ardent scholar. Their lawyer, Earl Brewer, spent his career fighting for social reforms. Ultimately an anti-lynching campaign would take his attention away from the Lums’ case, perhaps ruinously. Other legal players are profiled, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who penned the Court’s unanimous decision in favor of segregation. This is the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the tortured arguments of eugenics, racism and segregation as much as it is the story of a family who simply wanted a decent education for their children. Told with precision, sympathy and context, Water Tossing Boulders is a brief but incisive history of great significance.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 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 children.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

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Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 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: 6 letters.
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