Category Archives: Historical Novels

Khaled Hosseini in Berkeley, in person and in print


A review of And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In town recently for a probing interview conducted by Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel, best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini spoke about his craft much as any storyteller of our pre-literate past might have done.

“I just start writing and hope something happens,” he said. The interview took place June 23, 2013, before a capacity crowd in the chapel at the capacious First Congregational Church of Berkeley under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters.

Hosseini starts with characters he cares about and sets out to tell their stories. “You should be really excited about writing when you get up in the morning,” he insisted. If he loses interest in the characters, he’ll throw out as many as ten chapters and start all over again.

“I spend years with these characters,” Hosseini explained. “There’s an internal dialogue that goes on” as they develop in surprising ways.

And the Mountains Echoed began as a “linear novel” about a young brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, born in an Afghan village in the late 1940s. However, as Hosseini started to write, he began to wonder how some of the minor characters that had cropped up would fit into the narrative. For example, the children’s uncle Nabi “became central to the story” as the writing proceeded, and Nabi’s connection to a Greek doctor working for an NGO in Kabul subsequently took the story to a small Greek island as the doctor, too, emerged as a major character.

The result of Hosseini’s organic writing process is a novel that is at once intensely personal and broad in scope — a story that captures a half-century slice of Afghan  history as it relates the lives of Abdullah, Pari, and their family from the peaceful era of the mid-20th Century in Afghanistan to the present day in the South Bay below San Francisco. Compared to Hosseini’s previous novels, which verged on tear-jerker melodrama despite (or perhaps because of?) their universal appeal, And the Mountains Echoed is more ambitious, more nuanced, more insightful, and engages Hosseini himself far more.

This book firmly establishes Khaled Hosseini as one of the finest novelists working today. He belongs among that handful of post-colonial writers — including V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer — who were born within cultures unfamiliar to “the West” and serve as our interpreters of the intercultural experience.

Khaled Hosseini, now 48, has lived in the United States since the age of 15, when his family secured political asylum and moved to San Jose. (A Communist coup had just toppled the Afghan King, and Hosseini and his family were fortunate to be living in Paris, where his father was a diplomat.) A physician, Hosseini practiced medicine in the South Bay for a decade until shortly after the runaway success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, persuaded him to turn to full-time writing. Collectively, his three novels — A Thousand Splendid Suns was the second — have sold more than 38 million copies.

Late in her interview, Dinkelspiel asked the author what plans he had for his next book. “I have a few ideas,” Hosseini said, “but I really won’t know what will happen until I sit down at the keyboard.”

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A thoughtful, action-packed crime story that explores the boundaries of morality


A review of Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

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“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard.”

Thus opens Live by Night. It is 1926, years before this flash-forward. Joe is 20. Though his father, Thomas, is a senior police commander, Joe has been a practicing criminal since the age of 13, and he’s very good at it. He’s also easy to like. The novel follows him from his days as a small-time crook through his involvement in first one Boston gang, then another, to his rise as the crime boss of the Gulf Coast answering only to “the boys” (Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky) in New York. The action shifts from Boston to Tampa to Havana, dwelling on his involvement with an engaging young prostitute named Emma Gould to his marriage later in life to a brilliant and beautiful Afro-Cuban woman named Graciela. The story is written with a sure hand: action-packed, full of surprise shifts and revelations, and populated with credible characters, including not just the bosses but the spear-carriers, too.

In The Given Day; Gone, Baby, Gone; and Shutter Island, the literary phenomenon Dennis Lehane laid bare the dark underbelly of Boston society, peopling his novels with complex and conflicted characters and finding the good in bad people and the bad in good. Live by Night, his recent, Edgar Award-winning novel, picks up the tale of the talented Coughlin clan where The Given Day left them, following son Joe, who featured in the earlier tale as a young boy.

Live by Night is crowded with smart, thoughtful gangsters with whom Joe finds himself on the losing side more than once despite his obvious intelligence. Joe is tested in more ways than one, struggling with his Catholic upbringing as he rejects the existence of God and Heaven (“You didn’t die and go to a better place; this was the better place because you weren’t dead.”) and pondering whether he can be certain of anything except his own, elusive certainty. “Things weren’t ever what they were supposed to be; they were what they were, and that was the simple truth of it, a truth that didn’t change just because you wanted it to.”

The title of this superior crime story is shorthand for the environment in which Joe and his counterparts carry out their trade. As Emma tells him, “We’re not God’s children, we’re not fairy-tale people in a book about true love. We live by night and dance fast so the grass can’t grow under our feet. That’s our creed.”

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Isabel Allende’s latest novel is a triumph


A review of Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Pick up a copy of Isabel Allende’s new novel, Maya’s Notebook, and get ready for a wild and wonderful ride through the years and up and down the length of the Western Hemisphere. Though structured as a coming-of-age novel of young Maya Vidal, recounting the four seasons of her twentieth year, Maya’s Notebook ranges from the glorious madness of Berkeley, where she was born and raised, to the back alleys and casinos of drug-addled Las Vegas and an Oregon rehab center for incorrigible teenagers, to the magical solitude of an island off the Chilean coast. Along the way in this wrenching journey you’ll find yourself drawn back in time to the CIA-inspired coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende and the murderous repression that followed for seventeen years under the late unlamented Augusto Pinochet. Maya’s Notebook is a tour de force. Only a writer of Isabel Allende’s maturity and rare skills could pull together all these disparate threads and weave them together so artfully into such a pleasurable, and often laugh-out-loud funny, reading experience.

Maya Vidal is (of course) an unusual young woman. As she describes herself at the outset, “I’m nineteen years old, female, single — due to a lack of opportunity rather than by choice, I’m currently without a boyfriend. Born in Berkeley, California, I’m a U.S. citizen, and temporarily taking refuge on an island at the bottom of the world . . . I’m five-ten, 128 pounds when I play soccer and several more if I don’t watch out. I’ve got muscular legs, clumsy hands, blue or gray eyes, depending on the time of day, and blond hair, I think, but I’m not sure since I haven’t seen my natural hair color for quite a few years now.” Her father is Chilean, an airline pilot, “handsome as a bullfighter and just as vain,” her runaway mother a Danish flight attendant whom Maya long fantasized was a Laplander princess.

Why does this striking young woman find herself on an island in Chiloe, where she’s taller than everyone else? Therein lies the tale. On arriving, when she meets her designated host, Manual Arias, an aging sociologist friend of her grandmother, Maya introduces herself by saying, “Hi! I’m on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang.” Only deep into Maya’s Notebook does it become unmistakably clear that she’s not joking.

Maya is raised by her grandparents in a sprawling house in Berkeley. The great love of Maya’s life is her grandfather, her Popo, her grandmother’s second husband, Paul Ditson II, a huge and compassionate man as black as she is white, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. In exile in Chile, her constant companions are the old sociologist whose tiny home she shares; the local schoolteacher who suffers from unrequited love for the lonely old man; and a lame dog christened Fahkeen the day Maya arrived when a cab driver hears her try to get rid of the beast, yelling “Shoo! Get away, fucking dog!”

Almost in passing, Allende tosses out unforgettable passages. Berkeley is “that gritty, radical, extravagant city, with its mix of races and human pelts, with more geniuses and Nobel Prize winners than any other city on earth, saturated with noble causes, intolerant in its sanctimoniousness.” The school where Maya’s grandparents sent her “taught using an Italian system of experimental education in which the students did whatever the fuck we wanted. The classrooms had no blackboards or desks, we sat on the floor, the teachers didn’t wear bras or shoes, and everyone learned at their own pace.”

Maya’s Notebook is Isabel Allende’s 19th book. Allende, a long-time Bay Area resident, is Chilean, a first cousin once removed of the late president (not his niece, other than in the Spanish vernacular). Clearly, she’s spent a lot of time in Berkeley.

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Sheer reading pleasure: Gorgeous writing, lush detail, and a dollop of magic in a historical novel


A review of The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas

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If you enjoy reading for its unique possibilities — mellifluous language, vivid imagery,  immersion in places and circumstances you might never experience — then you’ll love this book. From the very first page, The Oracle of Stamboul will draw you relentlessly into the world of the Ottoman Empire in its twilight years of the 1880s. You’ll meet an extraordinary child, Eleanora Cohen, and you’ll be present with her from the violence of her birth in Rumania through her ninth year in Istanbul (then Stamboul) as the unlikeliest of advisers to the Sultan. You’ll revel in the sights and sounds and smells of this fabled imperial capital of two million souls, and you’ll gain a front-row seat on the plotting and scheming in the palace and among the timid revolutionaries who only wish that something, perhaps anything, might change. This book is a marvel of the writer’s craft.

For example, consider this scene-setting passage:

“Summer slipped into Stamboul under the cover of a midday shower. It took up residence near the foundations of the Galata Bridge and drifted through the city like a stray dog. Ducking in and out of alleyways, the new season made itself felt in the tenacity of fruit flies buzzing about a pyramid of figs, in the increasingly confident tone of the muezzin, and the growing petulance of the shopkeepers in the produce market.”

And that’s just the beginning of the paragraph.

The nine-year arc of this richly detailed story begins in the Rumanian town of Constanta, with the  death of Eleanora’s mother just minutes after her own birth. You’ll follow Eleanora and her father through through her early years as she demonstrates the extraordinary powers of her young mind, learning new languages in hours as though by magic and devouring the Greek and Roman classics in the original. You’ll follow her father, Yakov, on his journey to Stamboul to sell the most valuable of his stock of carpets, with Eleanora stowed away on the ship that carries him to the imperial capital.

I have nothing but good things to say about this outstanding first novel — except for the ending, which I found abrupt and disappointing. It struck me almost as though the book’s young author couldn’t figure out how to resolve his tale and simply dropped it in the middle.


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A brilliant Indian novel about the 19th Century opium trade


A review of River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Balzac (and lots of people after him) thought that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Nowhere is that aphorism more baldly illustrated than in the 19th-Century opium trade that enriched England, Scotland, and the United States and created a score of hereditary fortunes that have left their mark on the world for nearly two centuries since. After all, when Europeans introduced China to the practice of mixing opium with tobacco in the mid-18th Century, the one-sided trade in Chinese porcelain, tea, silk, and other goods was rapidly draining Europe of silver and reinforcing China’s position as the world’s richest country. The opium trade reversed that trend. Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China’s nearly two-century-long decline  was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR’s grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T.

River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons.

Ghosh’s sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War. The central plot-line follows the journey of a poor Indian Parsi (Zoroastrian) named Bahram who had risen to lead the trade division of a celebrated Mumbai shipbuilding company owned by his wealthy in-laws. Though not yet rich himself, Bahram has become the dean of the Indian opium traders, realizing profits for the family as great as those of many of the British and Americans but, in the racist fashion of the times, he is looked down upon as “inferior.” However, he comes to play a principal role in the traders’ increasingly tense and threatening dealings with the newly energized Chinese government, which has resolved to end the opium trade. (Bahram is the author’s invention, but the English and American traders depicted in the novel come straight from the pages of history.)

Any lover of language will find the writing of Amitav Ghosh irresistible. I certainly did. Both the dialogue and the narrative text in Sea of Poppies were enchanting. Ghosh had immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries and wordlists of 1830s India and Britain to reproduce the language and the vocabulary of not one but several English dialects. In fact, a great many of the novel’s characters are historical figures who left behind memoirs, letters, parliamentary testimony, and other records, and as Ghosh notes in his acknowledgments, “Much that is said in this book is taken from [the characters’] own words.” Even more colorful is the hybrid language that emerged from the marriage of English and Hindi and surfaces in dialogue throughout the book. But in River of Smoke, it’s the pidgin of 19th-Century Canton that stands out, and wonderful it is to behold!

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Romance, intrigue, and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul

A review of Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some books build slowly, and just as you begin to wonder whether you have the energy to finish them, you discover you’re a captive and no longer able to put them aside. Then they build and build, until you find yourself on the last page, out of breath from the frenzied rush to the end. Istanbul Passage is one of those books.

Kanon, born in 1946, writes spy stories about the period immediately following World War II and before the Korean War (1945-50). Istanbul Passage relates the tale of Leon Bauer, an American businessman whose poor eyesight had kept him out of the war. In compensation — seeking his own war, really — Leon has persuaded a friend of his in the U.S. consulate to hire him for special espionage assignments, helping smuggle Jews out of Romania and on to Palestine. Now, in 1945, Leon receives a different sort of assignment, which involves helping to smuggle a high-value Romanian intelligence target through Istanbul and on to safety in the U.S. But everything quickly goes wrong. Leon finds himself shooting a man to death in a firefight, and the Romanian turns out to be a war criminal at least partly responsible for one of the most notorious massacres of Jews outside the German camps.

Istanbul Passage is a complex and finely written tale. You can’t read the book without getting to know Leon Bauer — and Istanbul — as deeply as though you had experienced the story yourself. Joseph Kanon is one fine writer!

Kanon ran two major New York publishing houses before he began writing in 1995 when he was nearly 50. His five previous novels — Los Alamos (1997), The Prodigal Spy (1998), The Good German (2001), Alibi (2005), and Stardust (2009) — have won widespread acclaim, and deservedly so, as I’ve noted in my reviews. (To see those reviews, click on the titles of his last two previous books.)


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Murder in Tel Aviv: A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history

A review of The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

@@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

As an American Jew and both secular and far more progressive than the self-appointed leadership of the U.S. Jewish community, I’ve often wondered how the current intractable standoff between Israelis and Palestinians came about. “It’s obvious, you’ll say. “Jewish immigrants from Europe settled on Palestinian land,” and of course that’s true. But doesn’t it seem unlikely that every Israeli became an Arab-hater shortly after arriving, and every Arab a Jew-hater just as quickly? Weren’t there those on both sides who opposed the fighting and worked for reconciliation through the years of Israel’s “pre-history” (before 1948) and in the decades since? Surely, the latter-day Peace Now movement had its precursors in an earlier time.

The Debba, though framed as a murder mystery (and an excellent one at that), is a serious fictional inquiry into this question. In the view of its author, Avner Mandelman, it’s also an examination of “necessary evil,” the maniuplations and assassinations and kidnappings that governments carry out in the name of national security. Mandelman, a short-story writer who divides his time among Canada, California, and Paris, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force in the 1967 Six Days’ War that established the boundaries within which Israel allegedly lives today. He is well qualified to explore both questions.

Mandelman’s protagonist, David Starkman, a naturalized Canadian citizen, was a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces who carried out black missions in Arab capitals in the 1960s. When he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv, Starkman is suddenly pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.

The time is 1977, and the right-wing Likkud Party is given an even chance of overturning the Labour Government that has held office in Israel ever since Independence. Starkman’s father, Isser, a celebrated hero in Israel’s War of Independence, has been knifed to death and his body mutilated in the manner employed by Arab fighters. Starkman teams up with the police investigation but carries out his own independent inquiry through friends and family, encountering violent opposition along the way. Meanwhile, when his father’s will is read, Starkman learns that the old man is leaving his apartment and his savings to David only on condition that within 45 days he produce a play Isser wrote much earlier in life.

This play, The Debba, gives the novel its title and illuminates the early history of Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine. Its production brings about Starkman’s surprising new understanding of his father and his own family history as well as startling new insight into some of the events that set the course of Israel’s history.

The book, and the play, spotlight the “Debba,” a hyena-like creature that embodies the spirit of an Arab messiah who can lead the Palestinian people to vistory over the Jews.


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An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century

A review of Assegai, by Wilbur Smith

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One of the best ways I’ve found to learn history is through historical fiction. Though I’ve studied African history and read a fair amount of nonfiction about the continent, I may have learned just as much from Assegai, a popular novel set in British East Africa (now Kenya) in the period 1906-1918. (The title means “sword” in the language of the Masai.)

As a novel, Assegai is far from perfect. It tells the adventurous tale of a young white African man, just 18 at the outset, who displays his seemingly superhuman prowess as a soldier, a wild game hunter, a fighter pilot, and a lover. To say the least, Leon Courtney is hard to believe, as is his love, the extraordinary young woman whom we first meet as Eva von Wellberg. She is, of course, a paragon of beauty, grace, intelligence, cunning, and athletic ability both in and out of bed. And the two aristocratic Germans who play large roles in the book as antagonists could easily fit nicely into the role of villains in early silent films, twisting moustaches and evil eyes included.

Hyperbolic characterizations aside, though, Assegai opens up a window on a time and place about which I know so little. The author’s portrayal of the Masai people with whom Leon Courtney works, while idealized, projects the pride and dignity of an historically important ethnic community. As the action unfolds in the years before and during the First World War, Assegai throws light on the historical sideshow that was the struggle between German and British colonial forces in that theater so many thousands of miles from the Somme and the Argonne.

Assegai is one of the 13 novels in the saga of the Courtney family, which spans the five hundred years beginning in the 1600s.

Wilbur Smith, with more than 30 historical novels to his credit, is probably one of the world’s best-selling writers. His books loom large on the shelves of bookshops in many parts of the world outside the U.S., but they are less extensively read here , because his subject matter is his beloved native Africa.

Smith’s writing style is full of color and imagery. Hyperbole aside, it’s a pleasure to read.


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A brilliant novel set in Colonial America

A review of Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The year was 1660, the place an island now called Martha’s Vineyard. The “college at Newtowne,” a theological seminary across the bay much later named Harvard University, was 24 years old and sported a student body of 33 young men. The following year a brilliant young Indian, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, matriculated as a student there. This brilliant historical novel tells the tale of Caleb’s “crossing” from his life as a chieftain’s son in the untamed expanse of what was then simply called “the island,” to the ranks of the educated elite in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Harvard’s first Indian graduate. As Geraldine Brooks writes, “He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs.”

Caleb’s story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of the preacher on the island and granddaughter of the breakaway colony’s founder. At the age of 12, she and Caleb meet on one of her rebellious wanderings across the island. They become fast friends over time.

Bethia is entirely a construct of Geraldine Brooks’ fertile imagination, and she contrives to put the young woman in position to observe Caleb’s transformation almost constantly. However, virtually all the other characters in this novel are based on historical figures, some of them loosely (as is the case of Bethia’s family), some of them, including Caleb himself, hewing accurately to the known facts.

Caleb’s Crossing is history told as it should always be: vivid, engrossing, and emotionally honest. In relating Caleb’s story, Brooks paints an indelible picture of the early decades of colonial life in Eastern Massachusetts. She casts a bright light on the troubled, and eventually tragic, relationship between the colonists and the Indians, and explores an aspect of that history much less commonly discussed: the rebellion of so many colonists against the rigid, narrow-minded regime of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This is the fourth of Geraldine Brooks’ extraordinary historical novels. Unlike so many other writers in that genre, she has no favorite period, no fixation on a narrow subject, but ranges through the centuries and across the globe to find the most arresting topics to tell. And arresting they are! Every one of her earlier novels — Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2002), March (2006), and People of the Book (2008) — is both an adventure and a revelation to read. Brooks, an Australian-born former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal,  has a preternatural ability to relocate herself to an earlier time and an unknown place.

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An historical novel that’s good but not good enough

A review of A Night of Long Knives: A Hannah Vogel Novel, by Rebecca Cantrell

@@@ (3 out of 5)

With A Trace of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell launched the Hannah Vogel series in 2009, capturing reviewers’ attention with the fidelity of her portrayal of Germany in 1931, with the Weimar Republic in decline. In A Night of Long Knives, the sequel, Cantrell reaches further into the realm of coincidence and contrivance to paint a portrait of 1934 Germany, one year after Hitler’s forced takeover of the government. The first book was decidedly better.

The title, A Night of Long Knives, refers to the pivotal event in the novel: the time — three days really: June 30 through July 2, 1934 — when the Nazis conducted a violent purge of their ranks, reportedly executing hundreds and later passing a law making the murders legal. The focus of The Night of Long Knives, as that time is known to history, was Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s oldest friends, a flamboyant homosexual, and the leader of the brown-shirted stormtroopers, the SA, that had borne Hitler to power. Rohm, a central character in A Trace of Smoke as well as this sequel, had lost a struggle for Hitler’s patronage to Heinrich Himmler and his SS.

Both books’ protagonist is Hannah Vogel, a crime reporter for one of Berlin’s leading newspapers, who was forced to flee Germany after a risky encounter with Rohm and other dangerous individuals at the conclusion of A Trace of Smoke. Now, three years later, we find her improbably returning to Germany with her adopted 9-year-old son, Anton, whom Rohm insists is his son. In the story that ensues from their kidnapping by Rohm and his henchmen, the two are separated, and Hannah undertakes a desperate and convoluted journey through the depths of German society in hopes of recovering the boy. It is, of course, no surprise that she succeeds in this effort. What transpires along the way reveals a good deal about the dramatic range of attitudes toward Hitler and the Nazis among the German people of that era. The story piques curiosity and is reasonably well written, but it lacks the drive and suspense of its predecessor.

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