Friday, February 22, 2019

The Black Ascot

If there’s one thing better than finding a new author you love, it’s discovering an author you love who’s written a good number of novels already. So it is with The Black Ascot (William Morrow Books, 2019) and the mother/son team writing under the pen name Charles Todd, who somehow escaped my attention all these years despite their having produced more than thirty books, most of them mysteries and many of those historical.

Now, no offense to my own mother and son, but writing a book with either a parent or a child is the last thing I can imagine wanting to do. More power to Charles Todd that they pull it off so well. 

The story opens in June 1910, at an event later known as the “Black Ascot.” King Edward VII has just died, and to honor his memory, all the attendants at the annual races arrive dressed in mourning clothes. Quite a spectacle in and of itself, but the Ascot Races are just the beginning. We see them from the perspective of one Alan Barrington—also in mourning, but in his case less on behalf of King Edward than for his friend, Mark Thorne, a recent suicide. And perhaps for his friend’s wife, Blanche, whom Barrington loves and who has just married another man.

That makes twice that she’s chosen someone else over Barrington himself. The scene ends with Barrington heading for the parking lot, filled with horse-drawn carriages and motorcars, looking for one vehicle in particular. We soon learn that Blanche doesn’t survive the trip back to London, and her new husband suffers life-threatening and permanent injuries. Blame falls on Barrington, who had both motive and opportunity. But Barrington escapes justice by fleeing abroad.

Fast forward ten years, to January 1921. A Scotland Yard inspector named Ian Rutledge happens on a hostage taking in an English village, which he succeeds in resolving without harm to the victim. In gratitude, the former hostage’s uncle reveals that he saw Alan Barrington recently in Wales. And the hunt is on.

It would be churlish to reveal the many ins and outs of Rutledge’s hunt as he travels around England searching not just for Barrington but for any evidence that Barrington even returned from abroad. Suffice it to say that the mystery is well crafted, tension-producing, and ultimately satisfying: lots of red herrings, but in the end everything comes together, and we feel we knew the answer all along.

The most interesting element, though, is Ian Rutledge himself. A survivor of the Great War, Rutledge suffers from shell shock, a condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and understand to be a normal response to wartime events and similarly intense forms of trauma but that was then considered evidence of cowardice or emotional instability. In Rutledge’s case, it manifests as an internal voice he calls Hamish. Hamish was a real person (real inside the novel, that is), a Scotsman who served under Rutledge in the war and never came home yet who lives on in the detective’s mind. Hamish offers warnings and commentary, expressing Rutledge’s instincts and suspicions, as if delivering messages from the detective’s subconscious. Not that Rutledge himself thinks in such Freudian terms—historical sensitivity is a hallmark of this book—but as readers we recognize that possibility.

It’s a device that gives an appealing complexity to a character who could easily be flat: the quintessential English gentleman, with his repressed emotions and public-school education, his scruples and intellect. And it reveals the level of insight that this pair of authors has into not only their plot but their characters—so often an afterthought in detective fiction. I will definitely be reading more Ian Rutledge mysteries.

Many thanks to Danielle Bartlett of William Morrow Books, who sent me a review copy of this book. There was, however, no obligation on me to post a review, and as always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And for my own readers, let me also announce with many thanks to Five Directions Press that as of yesterday, Song of the Siren, the first of my new Songs of Steppe & Forest, is available in print and on Kindle. Just click the link to purchase, or check out the publisher’s book page for a description, endorsements, and audio and print excerpts first.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Interview with Yangsze Choo

In October 2013, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Yangsze Choo about her debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Set among the Chinese community of what was then called Malaya, in the early 1890s, the novel tells the story of Pan Li Lan, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a merchant family fallen on hard times. Desperate to repair his fortunes, Li Lan’s father contracts his daughter to the son of a wealthy local family. Sounds good, but there’s a catch: Pan Li Lan is a ghost bride, married to a dead man. Only a risky and difficult journey through the afterlife can free her from this unwanted bond.

I loved the first book, so when I saw on GoodReads that Yangsze had a new novel due out February 12, 2019, I contacted her right away. Because my podcast schedule had no space in it, Gabrielle Mathieu took over the audio interview about The Night Tiger for New Books in Fantasy, and we cross-posted it to New Books in Historical Fiction. But Yangsze also graciously agreed to answer written questions for this blog.

Yangsze, welcome! I so look forward to finding out more about how The Night Tiger came into being. Your first novel, The Ghost Bride, was also set among the Chinese community of Malaysia. What brings you back to this setting, if about fifty years later, for The Night Tiger?

I find it hard to write about places I’ve never been to, perhaps because a novel is like the unfurling of a dream and the reader has to inhabit this world with you. A jarring note causes this dream state to break up and dissolve. The experience of being transported involves intangibles like the color of the sky, the smell of the rain. When I wrote The Ghost Bride, I set it in Melaka, where my uncle used to live. For my second book, I knew I wanted to write about the Kinta Valley, which is further north. 

The area around Ipoh in this book is where I spent many childhood visits. It’s where my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up. In fact, my grandfather lived in a long, dark Chinese shophouse very much like the one described in The Night Tiger. You can still see many examples not only in Malaysia but wherever the overseas Chinese diaspora migrated, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and older parts of Hong Kong and Macau. I’ve always been interested in old houses because they retain a visceral sense of history and of stories waiting to be told.

Besides old Chinese shophouses, I’m also fascinated by the gracious colonial bungalows, with high ceilings and breezy verandas, left behind by the British. Many have been neglected or torn down, but quite a few have been beautifully restored and turned into hotels or restaurants. Nowadays, almost nobody can afford that sort of lifestyle, which requires a large staff of servants to maintain both the household and the grounds. The lives of those local servants and what they might have seen and thought (an alternate, mirror world to the sort of colonial novel that one tends to read about Southeast Asia—shades of Somerset Maugham!) was another inspiration for The Night Tiger.

The Night Tiger is told from two points of view: Ji Lin speaks in the first person but the past tense, whereas Ren’s story is told in third person present tense. Both of them are vital to the novel, but do you see one as more your main protagonist than the other, and if so which? What can you tell us in a few sentences about him or her?

Ooh! That’s a hard one. I didn’t set out to write a story from two points of view, but I quickly realized it would be hard to cover all the plot twists from one viewpoint. The decision to use third person present tense and first person past tense was fairly deliberate, as I wanted to make both narratives feel close to the reader. You could say that Ji Lin’s narrative is more dominant because it’s in first person. However, I also tried to give Ren’s narrative the quality of vivid honesty that you feel from a child. I actually quite enjoyed Ren’s point of view, in which the reader, as an adult, has the sense that Ren is coming to the wrong conclusions. For example, when Ren tells himself that his master, a British surgeon named William Acton, is “so sane, so reasonable,” the reader, of course, knows that William is actually falling apart.

What we experience through Ren’s eyes and his dreams is also very vivid. A reader told me that he felt the scenes of the railway stations were strangely true. I was happy to hear that, because that’s what I was going for—that feeling when you dream that the dreams are sharper and more meaningful than the real world.

To me, both Ren and Ji Lin are important. And perhaps that’s the point of the book—that all the characters are inextricably entwined together.

The title refers to a local belief in were-tigers, part of a broader category of spirit or sacred animals. What is that belief, and how does it work itself into your novel?

I’ve always been interested in shape-changers and the question of what distinguishes man from beasts. Every culture has its were-creatures. In Europe it is primarily the wolf. In Asia, it’s the tiger or the fox. I find it interesting that it is usually a predator that is said to disguise itself. One doesn’t hear many tales of a were-rabbit, for example.

Shape-shifting is both mysterious and terrifying—the notion that someone isn’t really human at all and is thus no longer subject to the rules and conventions of our civilization. The European werewolf is generally regarded in a negative or fearsome light. In Asia, however, the tiger is revered and sometimes the subject of ancestor worship. Some parts of Indonesia believed that the souls of relatives could pass into a tiger. There’s also the whole notion of keramat or sacred animals, which are said to be guardian spirits.

When I was writing the book, I thought about the contrast between the European idea of a were-creature and the Asian ones, and how in some cases, the were-tiger is not a man but a beast that wears a human skin. That’s such an interesting and creepy thought, which ties in with the whole “who are you?” question that we struggle with.

Ji (Wisdom) and Ren (Benevolence) bear the names of two of the five Confucian virtues. The others—Yi (Righteousness), Shin (Fidelity), and the mysterious Li (Order)—also appear in the novel. Leaving aside Li, whose identity would be a spoiler, who are these characters and why did you decide to use this principle to organize your novel?

You know, I’ve wondered about that myself! I started writing this book the way I started my first novel, with a scene that appeared in my mind. In this case, it was a dying old man who’s asking his eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy, Ren, to do something quite gruesome and sad. Gruesome because it involves recovering severed body parts, and sad because it is a terrible thing to ask of a child. And yet there’s nobility and honor in it. He asks Ren to do it because he thinks he’s saving society; he also believes the boy is capable of the task. So you have all these contradictory emotions together in one place, which is where I think it is best to start a story.

When I began writing this book, I really had no idea how it was going to turn out. I kept writing because I wanted to unravel the mystery. As other characters began to appear, their names actually reminded me of the five Confucian virtues. From there, I somehow got involved with were-tigers and was reminded of the five fingers of a hand, which in many ways is a symbol of our humanity. From cave paintings to space exploration, the expression of our civilization is the outstretched hand, which encompasses both the ability to build and write (plus an opposable thumb).

So I suppose the long answer is that the story grew organically from the Confucian virtues, in a way which often surprised and delighted me. I hope that readers will feel the same way too.

Are you already working on another novel?

Yes, I consider myself a slow writer because it takes time for a story to percolate through, but I’m currently working on my third novel. A lot of the time spent on it is actually trying to inhabit the world of the novel in my head. Only when I feel quite sure about where things are do I start writing. It’s like a mental map. I feel that if you don’t really understand where the book is set, then you can’t take the reader with you. Everything feels vague and out of focus. But when things work out, and the world starts to come together, it’s very exciting!

Thanks so much for answering my questions!

Yangsze Choo is a Malaysian writer of Chinese descent. Her first novel, The Ghost Bride, appeared in 2013 and was a NYTimes bestseller. The Night Tiger is hot off the press as of February 12, 2019.

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find out more about her and her books at her website.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Behind the Lines

In my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Pam Jenoff answers a question about the main characters in her latest bestseller, The Lost Girls of Paris, by noting that she likes writing books with multiple points of view.

I too like writing books with several points of view, as readers of my Legends of the Five Directions novels, especially The Golden Lynx, can attest—and I say that even though my current series uses a single first-person point of view instead. But what are the virtues of choosing one point of view over another?

First person is immediate and intimate (you’re right inside another person’s head). If the author is dealing with a difficult, guarded character—like my Juliana in Song of the Siren—first person opens up the character by revealing what she would never admit to anyone else. But first person is also limited, since no one can be everywhere or do everything. The reader knows only what the narrating character can know. For certain stories, that too can be an advantage, keeping the tension high by hiding plot points and motivations until the right time comes to reveal them.

But a novel like The Lost Girls of Paris absolutely demands not just third person but several points of view. Grace Healey, the first character we meet, has no connection to the main story, except that she discovers a set of photographs and sets out to uncover who the subjects are. She initiates the search, and she exemplifies the world after the war, its long-term effects and memories. But because Grace lives in the United States and we meet her in 1946, she observes past events, acting only at a distance. The role of onsite participant is left to Eleanor Trigg and Marie Roux, each of whom contributes in her own way to the events.

Eleanor supplies context. As the woman in charge of recruiting agents, she understands the larger structure, the planning, the choices being made. It is Eleanor who eventually uncovers the darkness at the heart of the operation—and because of her position it could only be Eleanor. Marie, in contrast, is on the ground, sent behind enemy lines and forced to deal with the consequences of executive decisions in which she has no say and factors that no one, including the heads of the operation, can control.

To oversimplify, Eleanor represents the agency’s brain, whereas Marie is its hands and feet and Grace speaks for its legacy. It’s the shift back and forth among these three perspectives that gives the novel its power, not least because the three women together can go places that each one could not go alone. Each of them also has her own take on the war, based on those experiences, and the blending enriches our perspective as well. That’s the other great benefit of multiple third person: the ability to contrast the insights of different characters, thus giving readers a broader picture of the whole than is possible for one person alone.

For another example of fluid, expressive use of multiple perspectives, don’t miss Yangsze Choo’s new novel, The Night Tiger—the subject of a New Books in Fantasy interview conducted by Gabrielle Mathieu and cross-listed on the New Books in Historical Fiction link below. You can also check back here next Friday, when Yangsze has graciously agreed to answer my questions.

But don’t forget to read the books as well. They’re quite different, but both wonderful—and definitely well worth your time.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

Although World War II has long been a favorite subject in both literature and history, a new interest seems to have developed in the multiple roles played by women during the war. In The Lost Girls of Paris (Park Row Books, 2019), Pam Jenoff examines from three different fictional perspectives a little-known, real-life British secret service called the Special Operations Executive (SEO). Originally developed to send male saboteurs and radio operators behind enemy lines in France, the SEO had to change its focus when unexpectedly high casualties revealed that men had become so scarce in rural France that its agents were instantly identifiable as people who did not fit in. The director then chose to recruit and send women instead.

The novel opens from the perspective of Grace Healey, detoured into Grand Central Station on her way to work. Grace discovers a suitcase sitting by itself under a bench and, while she’s trying to find out where it belongs, extracts a set of photographs. When she goes to replace them, the suitcase is gone. Grace’s curiosity is piqued, especially when she realizes that a connection exists between the photographs and Eleanor Trigg, whose death in a car crash caused Grace’s detour in the first place.

Eleanor, the second point-of-view character, turns out to have been the head of the female agents at SEO, a job for which she recruits the third character we meet, Marie Roux—a single mother forced to choose between spending time with her daughter and financially supporting her child while serving her country. As we move ever closer, from Grace’s distance in time and place to Eleanor’s founding role to Marie’s experiences on the ground, the danger and the potential for betrayal confronting the SEO agents become increasingly clear.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Cat Wars, Take Two

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the adjustments in my household necessitated by the ten-day visit of a new cat, unfamiliar with Siamese cat rules and—at that time—still adjusting to the idea that people also have rules and water squirters to enforce them. If you’d like to read that post, you can find it at “Cat Wars.” But the takeaway was simple: you want to socialize a cat, another cat can do it way better than you can. In short, my senior citizen, then fifteen and a half, licked, hissed, and stared the newcomer into shape in no time flat. The rest of us still had some issues, and the newcomer had issues with us, but the two of them worked things out in splendid style.

Advance a couple of years, and the newcomer, Cat #3, now referred to by the Filial Unit as the “grand-cat,” returned for another stay. The original girlfriend moved out, and another has stepped up to the plate, but the grand-cat remains with the Filial Unit and thus with the family. And while I had some doubts about repeating the socialization experiment, clearly the grand-cat could not remain all alone for almost a month in a small apartment with nothing but an automatic feeder and an occasional visit from friends. So I said sure, bring him along. Sir Percy, in an explosion of fatherly generosity, even drove to collect Filial Unit and cat to prevent any issues with the train.

What happened next was mostly pleasant. The grand-cat had become vastly more mellow as a general rule, due to intensive human intervention, although still a bit trigger-happy with his claws. He came out and roamed about within the first hour and showed considerable resilience, given that he’d been transported against his will into a house that already contained two resident cats. His attempts to scratch couches and walk on counters were mostly controllable with a water squirter, although he never quite gave up on either. And he clearly remembered, if not at once then within a short period of time, the deal he had worked out with Cat #1, now a magnificent seventeen and a half and slowing down a bit, but still capable of telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn and stay off.

The surprise this time was Cat #2, the female rescue now approaching ten years old (the newcomer is four at most). She never hid in the closet for days, as she did during the first visit, so she’s either mellowed considerably or she too had some kind of memory that let her start where she left off. However, she did retreat and refrain from any challenge for the first week and a half, letting the boys jockey and strut.
Then came Day 10. The three of us mere humans had our morning coffee interrupted by a mind-blowing shriek, mixed with a loud hiss and the unmistakable sounds of cats tussling. From then until the grand-cat left (no doubt thanking his lucky stars to be free of this virago who’d appeared to be such a pussycat [sorry—couldn’t resist that  one]), Cat #2 stalked him, attacking at least once a day while the visitor did his darndest to avoid getting on her feline radar. He was perfectly sweet to her, while she went for him every time she saw him. At first I left them to it, figuring they’d work it out. But the day before Cat #3 left, when Cat #2, two-thirds his size, had this fluffy Tuxedo-type bruiser trapped against a wall and refused to back down, I picked her up and carried her off long enough for him to make his getaway. Clearly, no working out was likely to take place in the next twelve hours.

So you know what they say: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Or in this case, a girl cat who’s had her territory invaded and has decided she just ain’t gonna take it any more.

Images: Cat #1 enjoying his leisure time; Cat #2 plotting her next foray; Cat #3 in a basket wondering where he went wrong and what he has to do to get the Filial Unit to take him home, where he belongs. 

All @ C. P. Lesley.