Posts Tagged 'historical fiction'

Book Review: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

I was completely seduced by the cover, title, and the advance praise for See What I Have Done.

In my defense…look at that gorgeous watercolor! Look at how “ha ha” is highlighted, mirroring the unhinged laughter that someone might emit as they murdered their parents. Realize (belatedly) that the title also echoes the infamous Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe:
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.


Alas, these also ended up being my favorites things about See What I Have Done, a book I had been eagerly waiting to read since it was reviewed in the New York Times. The focus sounded so interesting: the historic Borden murders, from the perspectives of Lizzie and Emma! There’s no way that I wouldn’t like this, right?

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Book Review: Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Rarely have I read a novel that self-destructed as spectacularly in its conclusion as Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. In my experience, at least, if a book is going to go sour, it happens quickly and early on. You probably know the feeling: you crack open a book you’re excited about, or that’s been recommended to you by someone you trust, and start to read, and it dawns on you almost immediately that you are going to hate this book, but you gamely struggle on, hoping against hope that it will get better. And when it doesn’t, you’re disappointed, but not necessarily surprised.

Year of Wonders is different, in large part because it starts out so strongly–making that fact that it ends so poorly feel almost like a betrayal.


Year of Wonders is, on the one hand, an impeccably-researched historical fiction novel about a small English town that, when faced with an outbreak of the bubonic plague, chooses to isolate itself to prevent the disease from spreading. Inspired by the true story of Esam, this novel follows the journey of one woman in particular: Anna, handmaid to the wife of the village’s rector, who has lost both her husband and her children. Rather than becoming broken due to the circumstances, Anna is built up. She steps into the vaccuum left by many of the town’s traditional leaders and becomes a powerful force in her own right. Anna learns to read and write, and–along with her employer and friend, Elinor–learns about herbal remedies that may be the key to stopping the devastating sweep of the plague.

Cool, right?

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Book Review: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

A sweeping epic that covers about 3,000 miles, a large cast of characters, and 945 pages (!), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a gripping and enjoyable read. Those 945 pages flew by for me! At times, reading Lonesome Dove felt like watching a movie. I actually missed my subway stop one morning because I was so engrossed in reading a particular scene, only looking up and realizing what had happened when my subway moved aboveground. Oops.

The story starts in Lonesome Dove, Texas, where former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus MsCrae have settled down, digging wells, shoeing horses, and generally living quiet lives. That all changes when an old friend of theirs comes into town, with the idea of driving cattle to the fresh, green pastures of Montana. We follow the outfit as they traverse miles of dangerous territory and try to keep from being killed (or killing each other).

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Review: Auraria, by Tim Westover

I’m a Northeastern girl through and through. I was born in Manhattan, raised on Long Island, and lived in Queens post-undergrad; I went to college and grad school in Rhode Island; the majority of my friends and family are spread between Boston, Providence, and New York City. The furthest south I’ve been in the U.S is South Carolina. So it was with slight trepidation that I approached Tim Westover’s Auraria, a novel centered on a small Southern gold mining town and steeped in rural Georgian history, culture, and myth. With very little background knowledge of the area, I was still able to understand and connect with Westover’s cast of mysterious, quirky, and downright magical characters.

Those characters were one of Auraria‘s biggest strengths. The residents of the town range from a piano-playing ghost to a Great and Invincible Tortoise to fish spirits to the assorted humans who happen to be just as odd as the non-humans. Out of our large cast, I liked Princess Tralyhta and Abigail the best. Both were presented as strong, fearless, and competent, and both were able to take Holtzclaw under their protection from some of the more dangerous elements of the town. The Princess managed to be mysterious, childlike, and threatening by turns, and I enjoyed her random interactions with Holtzclaw, as well as her explanation of how gold forms and why Auraria needs to be rid of it. Abigail, a tough young lady who sees visions of gold, was just excellent, and I would have gladly read an entire novel from her perspective. These unusual small-town folks helped to give Auraria the charming, dusty feel of a sepia-toned photograph–the story of a time that has come and gone.

For me, the weak link was actually our main character, Holtzclaw. As an outsider to Auraria, sent on behalf of his employer Shadburn to buy up property, Holtzclaw is a logical choice to serve as our point-of-view character; we can meet the rest of the cast through his eyes. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, and for good reason (hello, Great Gatsby!). However: Holtzclaw is presented as competent from the start–there is no real arc for him to go from surprised and frightened of the living local legends to deftly negotiating with them. Even when he fails in some of his early business deals, it’s not because he is freaked out by the ghost or the moon maiden or whoever–it’s just because his arguments fail to sway them. He is rarely surprised or impressed by any of the bizarre sights he is confronted with, which was honestly difficult to believe. Despite following him around for most of the novel, he remained a cipher to me (albeit a cipher who liked squirrel brains and a good claret).

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Review: The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman

A creature stalks the shadows of New Amsterdam. Known as the witika, it is a deranged beast that consumes the flesh of its fellow man. In Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster, the witika has been blamed for a recent string of orphan kidnappings and killings. Dutch merchant Blandine von Couvering, who is an orphan herself, has her doubts, and sets out to solve the mystery with the help of  British spy Edward Drummond, her servant/companion Antony, and Kitane, a Lenape trapper.

Though it had its faults, The Orphanmaster was well-written and provided an engaging lens through which to learn about some interesting history. The central mystery was gripping, though most readers will probably figure out who/what the witika is fairly early on. (Though it took me until the final author’s note to realize that the witika is the same legendary creature as the wendigo!) In part, this is because Zimmerman employs several point-of-view characters, including some who are thought to be the culprits behind the orphan kidnappings. Being able to solve the mystery didn’t necessarily lessen the novel’s tension, especially due to a revival of the creepiness during the third-act. Seasoned readers of mysteries may not be entirely impressed by the weak red herrings, but I thought Zimmerman’s writing and setting were enough to give this thriller a fresh gloss. The B plot, about Drummond hunting down the judges who signed the death warrant for the formerly-exiled English King Charles the I, is interesting, but because Drummond isn’t actually an assassin himself, I was much more intrigued by the witika, and it’s really the mystery that drives the plot.

One of this novel’s greatest strengths is the commitment to historical detail. Zimmerman lovingly illustrates New Amsterdam for us, from its dirty cobbled alleyways to the food served at its pubs. The setting pulses with energy, with sights and smells, with the clink of wampum, with the rolling tides. It was not surprising to me at all to discover that Zimmerman is a historian who has previously published nonfiction. Her world-building was really exceptional. It’s also fascinating to be able to compare the New York City of today with its beginnings during this period of time. Similarly, I thought she did excellent work conveying the wildness of the New World, and how perilous the settlement’s position was, threatened by American Indians, the English, and the raw power of nature itself, simultaneously threatening and bewitching.

The unbroken wilderness that lined the shore appeared able to absorb any perception Drummond might have of it and survive unchanged, intact, immune.

Continue reading ‘Review: The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman’

Review: Forever

 How to review a book like Forever, by Pete Hamill, which spans two countries and over 200 YEARS of history?

Okay, so: This guy grows up in Ireland in the 1730s. Some bad stuff happens, and then he makes  his way over to America, specifically New York, for vengeance. He becomes friends with a bunch of people, including some slaves. He eventually receives a magical gift: as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan, he will live forever. So he keeps living and living and seeing the city change and it’s all very historical but in a cool way.

What's more New York than reading in Central Park? 🙂

I also think this is the first book I’ve read written by a norteamericano that I’d call magical realism. The first time something magical happened, I was really not into it, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. As I read on, though, Hamill got me to sign on, and soon my reactions were just like, “Oh, she turned into a raven” or “Hey, that’s the guy Cormac first met on the ship he left Ireland on.” 

Anyway, Cormac doesn’t just passively watch history, he interacts with it. He fights for General Washington, becomes a friend of Boss Tweed, even meets some jazz greats. By the time he hits year 150, though, you’d think he’d be bored and jaded, or just driven completely insane. But Cormac finds ways to keep his mind and body occupied, ranging from helping to build the underground subway system, to painting, to learning to play piano, to becoming a reporter for a slew of different newspapers, to having relationships with women of varying seriousness.

Now, for my minor complaint: For me, the Ireland part of the book was just an absolute slog to get through. I don’t know why. Hamill is a great writer, and some bits were genuinely interesting, like Cormac’s summers spent with the old, true Irish in the mountains. And the Ireland years set the stage for a lot of supremely important events that take place later. The problem may have been with me, honestly: I knew there was awesome New York City goodness just lying beyond these pages, and I wanted it NOW!

And if I’m honest with myself, I was kind of disappointed with the ending. But I understand why Hamill did what he did.

Really, though, I just wanted more. More early New York history! More run-ins with famous historical figures! The best, most exciting parts of the book for me was the huge swath of the middle section where Cormac is living (and living…and living) in New York and watching it change decade by decade. But then, curses! Hamill jumps from 1878 to 2000 with only a peep about the years in between! I love current New York City, obviously, but Hamill has such a skill for turning early New York into a tangible place that I was kind of sad we made such a large jump to the present. And I have to address this…(highlight because of spoilers…) I really went back and forth over the inclusion of 9/11. On the one hand, it was probably one of the better treatments of it that I’ve read. On the other, it felt a bit jammed in there, though I knew it was coming as soon as Delfina said where she worked.I guess I have to ruminate on it some more. Okay, spoiler over.

A must read for New Yorkers, and anyone who wants to learn about New York City’s history in the least textbook-y way possible. (Listening to “Forever” by Chris Brown while reading not recommended.)

This fulfills the New York Challenge.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: See New York as you’ve never seen it before!

Second Opinions: Has anyone else reviewed Forever? Drop me a link and I’ll add it here.

And just for fun, here are some photos I took last Sunday in Central Park:

The view above the pond

May only be exciting to me...but this wood duck was hanging out with mallards in the pond!

Spring is here!!

Review: The Commoner

I’ve always found Japan’s history and culture extremely interesting, so when I stumbled across The Commoner, the tale of an  ordinary girl becoming Empress of Japan by John Burnham Schwartz, I was immediately set on reading it. I’m glad I did–I enjoyed it, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t have some issues with it.

Based on the real Empress of Japan, Michiko, the novel details the life of the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. In the fictionalized version presented, her name is Haruko Tsuneyasu, and she takes us through her life growing up in post-WWII Japan, becoming a young woman, and eventually marrying the Crown Prince of Japan, against the advice of her father.

Learning about the secretive, tradition-bound world of the Japanese royal family was really intriguing. Haruko is the perfect narrator, as she too is learning about these rules for the first time. It was easy to see how stifling the court rituals were, and therefore not surprising to see Haruko begin to wither away. Until relatively recently in Japan, the Emperor and his family were worshiped as descendants of the gods. On the surface, that sounds great–you’ve got servants at your beck and call, live in the royal palace, don’t have to work, etc, etc. But where The Commoner really shines is showing how being perceived as gods is actually an awful burden. Besides coping with the endless rules (always enter the room behind the Prince, never speak before he does), Haruko is nearly robbed of her humanity. Becoming the Crown Princess changes her relationship with her parents, introducing stiff formality and distance between them all. Haruko is barely allowed to see her son–nurses feed and change him, and only hand him off during prearranged visits. She has no real friends in the palace, no one she can trust or talk to. It’s heart-breaking to read.

Schwartz does an admirable job writing from the voice of Haruko. She is dedicated to her loving parents, but headstrong and her own person; her voice, though traditional in style and prose, shows just how deeply the strict rules of the court affect her, and how much, in her own small ways, she challenges them. (Also, though it’s not a large part of the book, I really related to the parts where Haruko described her aimlessness after graduating school without knowing what she truly wanted to do with her life.)

One thing I would have liked more of were the “middle years” of Haruko’s life; the book covers her early life as Crown Princess very well, and her later years as Empress, but completely cuts out her life from her late 20s to late 40s. I may have just read it too quickly, but despite the lingering treatment Schwartz uses on Haruko’s post-college and early Princess years, the book felt very short. (And to some, the ending might seem straight-up wish fulfillment, but I didn’t care–I was cheering for Haruko and Keiko to pull it off the entire time.) I also felt that the book was a little weaker in the second half, once the excitement and then dread of Haruko’s marriage wore off, but it did still keep me reading.

It’s overall an interesting, worthwhile read, especially for those who are interested in getting a glimpse behind the scenes of Japan’s royal family–and learning about the women who suffered under, and eventually changed, the system.

This book counts towards the Women Unbound Challenge.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: A sad but ultimately hopeful look at the world of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Second Opinons:
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Book Reporter

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