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Posts tagged 'Historical Fiction'

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Thus begins the novel, Warlight, by the Booker Prize winning author of The English Patient. Set during and after World War II, Warlight captures the lasting impact of war on those individuals who worked behind the scenes in British intelligence. Ondaatje focuses on the effect of secrecy on the children of those operatives living double lives.

The narrator of the book is Nathaniel--first introduced as a 14-year-old boy, and later, as a 29-year-old man.  Seen through his eyes, the first 180 pages introduce us to unfamiliar people and places and seem to lead nowhere. Ondaatje brilliantly mirrors the sense of confusion that Nathaniel and his sister Ruth feel after their parents disappear.

 All I knew, Nathaniel reflects, was that the political maps of [my father’s] era were vast and coastal and I would never know if he was close to us or disappeared into one of those distances forever, a person who, as the line went, would live in many places and die everywhere. (p. 180)

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

The location is Tangiers, Morocco, and the time period is the early 1950’s. Our two main characters, Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley, met as roommates at prestigious Bennington College in Vermont. They were very close, living together all four years.  Alice came from a long line of blue bloods, and always had lovely clothes and jewelry. In contrast, Lucy was a scholarship girl, from the wrong side of the tracks, had there been tracks in the tiny town where she grew up. Really the only thing they had in common was that they were both orphans.  

Their senior year, a tragic accident occurred in a car in which Alice was riding. Alice and Lucy barely spoke after that.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

03/15/18
 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

During World War II, New York Harbor played a major role in the war effort. According to the publication of the New York Historical Society, more than three million men shipped out from New York Harbor. At the war’s peak, 70,000 people were employed, including many women. New York Harbor became the largest shipbuilding facility in the country.

Egan uses this history as a backdrop for her book, Manhattan Beach. The story weaves together the lives of three people: Anna Kerrigan, a small parts ship machinist who becomes the first female diver; Anna’s dad, a deft conman; and Dexter Styles, the nightclub owner and mobster for whom Anna’s father works. In many ways, it is a coming of age story about a savvy girl, Anna, who at age 19, is left to care for her mother and disabled sister. Her father has disappeared and is presumed dead. The plot is driven by that disappearance and by Anna’s quest to find him.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

10/06/17
 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink is a character-driven historical novel whose intricate plot calls to mind such authors as A. S. Byatt (The Possession), Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book) and Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch).

In it, the period of the 1660s London is flawlessly interwoven with the year 2000—the year that 2 researchers come upon a treasure trove of documents found under a staircase in a 300 year old house. Helen Watt, an aging and crusty professor of history, and Aaron Levy, a young and impertinent graduate student, are thrown together as they solve the mystery of a scribe whose pen name is Aleph. Aleph (Ester Velasquez) came to London from Amsterdam in the early 1660s after the death of her parents. London, under Cromwell, just allowed Jews back into the city after a 300 year expulsion. Ester comes to live with her former tutor, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, and she writes the letters he dictates to her. The plot of the book is interwoven with such historic events as The Great Plague of London and The Great Fire of London as well as the crisis caused by Sabbatai Zevi-the false Jewish Messiah. Moreover, Baruch Spinoza, whose views on God served to excommunicate him, is integral to the plot.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

10/04/17
 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

PerryEssexThe Essex Serpent represents the best in current historical fiction. A second novel by British author, Sarah Perry, it was named Book of the Year by the Waterstone’s Bookstore. Set in 1893, the book explores many themes—among them, friendship, science vs. religion, the role of women in Victorian England, the class divide, and social conditions and mores of the times. The writing is highly evocative and calls to mind the writings of other Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Like Dickens, Perry highlights the squalor of the London slums. Perry also illuminates advances in medicine and surgery, including the first open-heart surgery and the prevailing treatment of tuberculosis in the late 19th century.

 

The main character is Cora Seaborne—a young widow formerly married to a sadistic older man. Now free to live as she chooses, she embraces her early passion for collecting fossils and roaming the English shores. Like others of her class, she is influenced by Darwin’s publication, The Origin of the Species, first published in 1876.When she visits Essex, Cora falls in love with the sheer wildness of the place. There, she befriends the local pastor and his family and learns about the Essex Serpent—a mythical creature dating back centuries. The plot is driven by Cora’s desire to determine whether the monster really exists.

 

Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical  British Fiction

07/12/17
 

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller

FullerQuietFuller, born in Britain, and raised in Zimbabwe, has previously written several very well-received memoirs about living in Africa; among them are Leaving Before the Rains Came and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

After the author moved to Wyoming, she attended the annual commemoration of the 1877 murder of Crazy Horse on a nearby reservation. As Fuller said in an interview, she arrived to participate in the commemorative ride of 400 men and women mounted on horseback. She felt instantly at home on the reservation, and she stayed for three months. She lived with the Lakota Indians and participated in all aspects of their daily life, including tribal ceremonies.

Quiet Until the Thaw, her first fiction novel, is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota, home to the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation. Fuller’s story spans generations and geography, writing frankly about the effect of the federal government’s continuous interference in Indian affairs. Two main characters, cousins Rick Overlooking Horse, and You Choose Watson, born within a month of each other, serve as the reader’s window into tribal divisions and infighting. The men could not be more different. Rick, a seriously injured Vietnam War veteran, chooses a peaceful l existence at the edge of the desert. He refuses government disability and military pension payments, instead living off the land, selling herbal medicines, breaking horses, and becoming a wise man. You Choose Watson takes a completely different path, becoming a thoroughly corrupt tribal business leader.

Fuller’s story telling is nothing short of fabulous, entrancing me as I read about a subject I didn’t know I would be interested in. The chapters are short, only one or two pages each, and every word needs to be read carefully.

Westerns  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Contemporary

06/23/17
 

The Purple Swamp and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

LivelyBooker Prize winner Lively gives us yet another book with keen observations of human nature and told with empathy and humor.

The title story takes place in the garden of Quintus Pompeius in ancient Pompei. Located in what is now Naples, Italy, Pompei was a Roman city destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The narrator is a purple swamphen, a bird native to swampy marsh areas and now an endangered species. In the lush garden of Quintus Pompeius, as in other gardens of wealthy Romans, this beautiful bird was kept for ornamental purposes.

The story highlights the debauched life of the upper class Romans, especially that of the ruler Pompeius. This particular garden “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm” (p2). Pompeius’s children took pleasure in pulling the wings off butterflies and the feathers off the birds. A bond develops between the 14-year-old slave girl (herself abused) and the purple swamphen.

Lively anthropomorphizes the bird-narrator to lend an amusing detachment to her observations of humans-“a forensic interest in the practices of this curious species”—a species that drinks and eats to excess, enslaves others, and practices all manner of abuse. The reader cheers when the volcano erupts and the innocent creatures—the birds and the slave girl--escape nature’s onslaught.

Short Story  Sara Picks  Historical Fiction

05/26/17
 

The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan

RyanChilburyI am frequently asked to suggest a book that’s “light but good,” and here is my latest recommendation: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Written by a first-time author, the novel is a good, escapist read.

The story is set in the small English town of Chilbury, over a few months in 1940. As the men have left to fight in World War II, the church’s Vicar declares that the church choir must be abandoned – lacking male voices, it can’t exist. The ladies of the town, who had taken on many of the absent men’s responsibilities, respectfully disagree. “Just because the men have gone off to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!” they ask. The Vicar reluctantly agrees to let them try, although he is quite sure that a ladies’ chorus would be lacking. 

Organized by Professor Primrose Trent, of London, the women in town band together to “carry on singing.” The all-female choir becomes a new family. Working together, they create beautiful music for christenings, funerals, and other events. They even win a choral competition. They share their joys and losses, finding the music and companionship important parts of their lives.

The author tells the tale through a series of journal entries and also letters shared among five main characters. It’s a very effective device for story-telling (the book does remind me of the very popular The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!). The story, inspired by the author’s grandmother, contains elements of romance and domestic issues, as well as themes of drama and intrigue, espionage and trickery, life and death. A young refugee girl from Czechoslovakia adds an especially humanizing element to the war story.

World War II  War  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Epistolary  British History  British Fiction

04/14/17
 

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

KlinePieceI really enjoyed this novel, as I did Kline’s last book, the wildly popular Orphan Train. As she did with Orphan Train, the author pays meticulous attention to historic detail, and she writes in an engaging writing style that makes her new book hard to put down.

The book focuses on the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, one of the best known works of the 20th century and part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The inspiration for the painting was Christina Olson, who was born in 1893. She was Wyeth’s neighbor, and she was his muse. In fact, he claimed an upstairs room in her family’s farmhouse to do sketches for the painting, completing most of the final work there. In the painting, Christina’s face is turned away, inviting the viewer to wonder who she was.

Olson grew up on her family’s farm in the remote coastal town of Cushing, Maine. It was a bleak existence; the land had been in the family since 1743, and adjoining acreage had been sold off over the years as family fortunes dwindled. At the age of 3, Christina developed a high fever that left her legs damaged. A brilliant student, she was asked to continue her education so that she could take over as the school’s head teacher, but her father refused to let her. He forced his daughter to stay on the farm and do arduous farm chores despite her physical limitations. As a young woman, Christina was courted by a college man who ultimately broke her heart. But she fought her way through life, refusing to be a victim of her circumstances.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Artwork  Art

04/12/17
 

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

ButlerHeartsNickolas Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.

Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds “Reveille”, awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often many of the boys are hung over, as is Nelson’s own father who serves as one of the camp’s chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as father figure in place of Nelson’s own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson’s only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he’s taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962 to 2022.

After Nelson’s father dies, the boy is sent to military school, then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he becomes became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote wilderness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play “Reveille”, so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to their electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio, and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan’s grandson Thomas goes to camp one summer.

The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts. There are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can’t wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.

Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age  Boy Scouts of America  American History

04/07/17
 

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