Tag: Historical Fiction

by Amor Towles

I tried very hard to like this book, because it was highly recommended to me by two family members, but I just can\’t get into it. I did read as far as the first passage my dad or sister marked (p. 96) and flipped through to read the other marked passages. It\’s full of elegant language, insightful and clever remarks, unflappable characters who meet awkward circumstances with dignity. It\’s about a gentleman who is placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. His crime -as far as I could tell- is writing some revolutionary poetry so he is spared being shot and instead condemned to live in a grand fancy hotel. For some thirty years. So he watches a lot of history pass by, gets to know the various hotel staff intimately, and some of the other guests, including a nine-year-old who first shows him the rooms in the basement and where to sneak to spy on meetings in the old ballroom. The story wanders all over the place, in past reminiscences and current musings to stories told and heard by others. All very rich and fine and sometimes amusing or insightful, but somehow boring too. I\’m sorry to say I was relieved to give up on it. Could just be wrong timing for the reader. It\’s popular enough I\’ll always be able to find a library copy if I want to give it another try someday.

Borrowed from a family member.

Abandoned                             462 pages, 2016

more opinions:
Attack of the Books!
who else has read it?

by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

I saw this at Indextrious Reader, and wondered immediately if my nearly-fifteen-year-old would like it. It has a lot of elements my teenager enjoys in books: romance, a bit of drama, intrigue and spying. This is a war story, set during the Spanish Civil War. The main character, a young seamstress-in-training named Sira, flees the turbulence in Madrid and goes to Morocco with her fianceé. Where she gets unexpectedly stranded, betrayed and burdened with a heavy debt due to someone else\’s reckless behavior. She turns to her sewing skills to get herself out of the mess, and it evolves into something else, leading to connections that get her involved in espionage.

I didn\’t quite get that far. I read about a third of it and then began skimming, loosing interest and not willing to push through six hundred-plus pages. It\’s a good story, with a strong female character who remakes her life several times over, but I just didn\’t find anything I could quite connect to. The political events all felt like flat background material and Sira\’s personality never really felt alive to me. I suppose it could be the fact that the text is translated, or it could be that it\’s just not my usual type of read, so I didn\’t find it exciting. I did, however, get enough of a feel for it to surmise there\’s nothing I\’d object to my teenager reading! although I don\’t quite know if the author\’s style will be appreciated more than I could.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned                   615 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Fantasy Book Club
Ardent Reader
anyone else?

by Alice Cushing Gardiner
and Nancy Cabot Osborne

I found this book browsing on the Internet Archive. Picked it up for a light read, was slightly disappointed. It shows its age, but also was written for juvenile audience and has two authors, that might be part of the reason it fell a bit flat for me. Story of a young boy who lives on Nantucket during the heyday of whaling. Most of the narrative is just about his daily life- bored in school, roaming the beaches when he can get away from the strict eye of his mother and grandfather, getting into a bit of mischief with his best friend- searching for buried treasure (which turns out to be a crate of bottled wine). He\’s forbidden to go the wharves but enthralled by sailor\’s stories especially of pirates. Finds a parrot and returns it to a Spainard who lives in a shack near the beach (he\’s afraid of this foreign man until the Spainard offers him food, and thanks them broadly for the return of his parrot). Witnesses the rescue of crew off a shipwreck near shore- and the adults talk of scavenging the goods (I gather this was customary if there were no survivors). There\’s mention of local customs- a bit interesting was the communal sheep-shearing day. He\’s proud to bring down a goose bird when he goes duck-hunting with his grandfather. Uppermost on the boy\’s mind is going away to sea, but he\’s considered too young. He attempts to sneak aboard a ship and stowaway so the captain will be forced to accept him as cabin boy, but his plan doesn\’t work. Sneaks home again and gets in trouble for getting his boots wet (any little chill or soaking and he was sent promptly to bed!) The book closes with a final promise from his parents that next year when he\’s ten, he can sign up to go to sea. It doesn\’t sound like a glamorous occupation, though. One of the men described to the young boys in detail what work it was to cut up a dead whale and process the blubber into oil- it sounds very messy and odorous, not to mention stomach-turning. I was mildly surprised that this frank explanation of the hard work on board ship did not deter the boys at all in their eagerness to go. Especially since it was made clear to them that the first several years with the crew, their job would be to wait table on the captain, assist the mess cook and clean things. What fun.

I think this book is based on true events, because the frontispiece dedication is to those Nantucket people whose memories have made this book. So it has value as a historical piece, but honestly wasn\’t a very fun read. I found  myself skimming a lot, hoping the story would get good when the boy snuck aboard ship. It\’s probably very realistic, though.

Rating: 2/5                pages, 1928

by Charles Frazier

I eagerly anticipated reading this book, based on my enjoyment of Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, Thirteen Moons couldn\’t hold my interest. It\’s a historical novel surrounding the time when Cherokees were forced off their land by the American government. The main character is a twelve-year-old orphaned boy Will, who is sent by his aunt and uncle to work off years of bond in a trading post on the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He has a fine horse, and loves reading, but not much else in the way of prospects. He soon meets a Cherokee man who basically adopts him into the tribe, and gradually he gets introduced to the culture. For me the most vivid, memorable scene was when he attended a tribal dance where the native americans impersonated the various foreigners who had invaded their land. One of the author\’s aims seemed to be showing how varied the abilities and stations were among Cherokees- Will spends winters among the Cherokee in an earth-and-wattle hut surrounded by dim smoky light and storytelling, but later in the story he visits a fine plantation run by a wealthy Cherokee man who has slaves and a beautiful young girl (and he falls in love). He muddles around trying to find his place in life, eventually settling on pursing law (because he has law books) and trying to fight for the Cherokee to stay on their land. His visits to Washington are eye-opening: the portrayal of the capital as a small, muddy town full of pretentious and self-absorbed folk, quite a different picture of our early government than I ever had in mind. His efforts fail, the girl leaves him (several times) and he starts to watch the forced removal of his adopted people from their homeland. I struggled to get through the chapters where he started pursuing law, my attention to the story lagging, and hoped it would pick up again with this depiction of dissolution and despair. But I couldn\’t bring myself to keep reading- two thirds done, and I had no more attachment to the characters than at the very beginning. It\’s a slow book and I failed to stick it through.

Abandoned              422 pages, 2006

by Norah Lofts

This is the story of a place. The home of a wine-seller at a crossroads. When a group of Roman soldiers moved through the area they left their wounded leader behind, and he found an ill slave girl locked in a room (for her safety). Together they struggled to survive in the lonely place- all other inhabitants in the nearby villages having fled. By the time the Roman soldier had healed enough to leave, he didn\’t want to- had found acceptance there- even when people antagonistic towards Rome moved in and he had to hide his identity. What began simply as someone\’s home became an important locale in the community; eventually it became a tavern and inn. Over the centuries the building with its specially tiled floor served many different functions, but always remained in the hands of the same family, originally formed by that Roman soldier and the slave he rescued from starvation, so long ago.

I liked a piece of historical fiction written by this same author which I read many years ago, so I\’d always hoped to have more of her books. Unfortunately I didn\’t care for this one. The initial story of the slave suddenly finding her freedom and together with the Roman finding ways to stave off starvation until the settlement was populated again, when they became prosperous- was interesting. But then suddenly the woman was old, invoking vaguely understood rituals the Roman had mentioned to her, baffling her companions. And the storyline quickly moved on to other characters, all introduced very briefly as the book tells of how this place remained useful through the centuries. It just wasn\’t keeping my attention at all, by page 95 I simply lost interest.

Abandoned               376 pages, 1980

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father\’s job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as \’Out-With\’ but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father\’s seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- \’the Fury\’- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and all wearing the same clothes. There\’s a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

by Jennifer Roy

This fictionalized account is based on the childhood of the author\’s aunt. She- Syvia- lived with her family in a ghetto in Poland from 1939-1945. Syvia was only four and a half years old when it began. She was one of very few survivors- only twelve children made it out of that ghetto alive at the end of the war. She was silent about her experiences for forty years, until sharing her story in a series of interviews with her neice.

The story is told in free verse. I don\’t often read narrative told via poetry. In this case I think keeping the details brief makes a story about the Holocaust easier for young readers to handle (this is a j-fiction book). But it also left me feeling unconnected to the characters- it\’s more about what happened to them, then about them as individuals. Syvia\’s story tells of living in privation, locked behind a fence in the ghetto. Leaving all their belongings behind, living in crowded conditions with few comforts. No school or playtime. Facing illness and starvation. Watching people getting shipped away in the cattle cars, told they were being sent to places where workers were needed, but after a while they began to doubt that.  Syvia lost her friends and a cousin, one simply disappeared when she went outside. Her family worried for her safety so she remained in the small, barren apartment and could not even approach windows, for fear of attracting the soldiers\’ attention. Her older sister escaped the camps by lying about her age so she could work in a factory. When children were deliberately targeted to be sent on the trains, Syvia\’s father and other men in the ghetto made a daring move to hide the remaining children in a cellar. There they stayed for months in the dark, barely daring to make a sound and weak from hunger and cold. Liberation came just in time.

The prevailing feeling that comes through is so- dismal. Having read a lot about the Holocaust before (especially in my high school years) I knew what to expect in many parts of the story, but it still brought me close to tears reading about the suffering, through the eyes of a child. And of the awful risks people took to save others. In some instances, a detail that saved many people from certain death was incredibly fortuitous.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             242 pages, 2006

by W. Somerset Maugham

 * * * warning there are spoilers here * * *

It is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gauguin; in this novel the character of the artist is named Charles Strickland. It is told through the eyes of a bystander, a man who happens to meet Strickland\’s wife at a dinner party and later becomes curious about the man\’s character and becomes a close acquaintance. I wouldn\’t say friend, as he never liked the man, who had a blatant lack of regard for other people\’s feelings. In this story, Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and moves to France in order to pursue his art undistracted. The narrator encounters him again through the friendship of another artist- a simple, trusting man who admires Strickland\’s then-unrecognized genius. When Strickland, often destitute, falls seriously ill, this other artist takes him in; things happen and the poor man\’s marriage is destroyed. Strickland leaves- and our narrator (willingly) looses track of him for a while. Later he conveniently happens to meet other men who have had later acquaintance with the artist, and finds out that Strickland went to live in Tahiti, where he lived among the natives, seeking out a primitive idyll. He lived with a young woman who was his unofficial wife, and died in isolation and great suffering from leprosy. All the while, to the very last trying to paint and express some ideal vision from his soul.

While the book has a rather pessimistic view of human nature- at least, as far as the character of Strickland is concerned- it is so well-written I did enjoy it. Being told as a second-hand account, it has a lot of other characters and little side-stories. The writing style and descriptions of life in Paris, reminded me somewhat of George Orwell\’s work, Down and Out in London and Paris.

It did spur me to look up more about Gauguin, so I learned how many liberties this story actually takes. While a lot of it is roughly true to case, he didn\’t, for example, leave his wife in the way described. He did have quite a number of sales during his artistic career, had a dealer, didn\’t die in complete obscurity – nor of leprosy- and lived on a few south sea islands in succession, not just Tahiti. He had a different, young \”wife\” at each tropical locale- quite arguably the man was a pedophile. One of the scenes in the book which I found most moving, where he painted the entire walls of his house in a mural considered a masterpiece, and then his young wife burned it to the ground at his request after his death, was completely fabricated. I did wish more of the story covered his life in the tropics- that was such a short segment at the end of the novel.

The idea of a man driven to express something, having no desire for anything but to paint, and forsaking everything in his comfortable life to pick this up at age forty, facing the ridicule of those in polite society around him- well, there is something admirable in that. I know what it is like to be enthralled by the act of creation with your hands, even if the resulting product is not so great- to want to keep doing it just because you feel so alive when you do.

Does anyone know what the title refers to? I could not quite figure that out. I\’m now curious to read a travelouge Gauguin himself wrote, about his time in Tahiti, called Noa Noa, and perhaps another fiction loosely based on his life by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Way to Paradise.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 4/5                   264 pages, 1919

More opinions: Living 2 Read
anyone else?

the Journals of May Dodd

by Jim Fergus

At a peace conference in 1854, a Cheyenne chief asked authorities in the U.S. Army for a gift of one thousand women, to be brides for the warriors of his tribe. Because the Cheyenne have a matrilineal society wherein children belong to their mother\’s tribe, the chief saw this as a perfect means to merge his people into the encroaching white man\’s society. In real life, it never happened. The Cheyenne\’s proposal met with outrage and the peace conference fell apart. But what if it did go through? In an alternative history, this novel thoroughly explores that idea. (I paraphrase here one of the opening paragraphs in the book\’s introduction).

May Dodd is from a family of high society, so her liaison with a man of lower social status is deemed highly inappropriate. When she defies her family by living with the man she loves and having his children out of wedlock, she is forcibly consigned to an insane asylum. It is misery there- but to her surprise one day she is given a chance at freedom: to volunteer in the \”social experiment\” of becoming a wife in the Cheyenne tribe. All the women sent to the plains to join the tribe must go of their own accord and finding a serious lack of volunteers, the government acquires recruits from insane asylums, prisons and \’houses of disrepute\’. Thus the company May keeps on the train West is full of interesting, colorful characters from all walks of life. Her story unfolds alongside that of a dozen other women she keeps in close contact with. It is similar in many ways to the story of another recent book I read- gradual learning of a new culture, seeing the world from the natives\’ point of view, running up inevitably against the white men forcing them off the land (in this case, the tribes had been granted \’forever\’ the land of the Black Hills- until gold was found there and the whites wanted it back).

I prefer perhaps, a more personal narrative that focuses on one person- this one although written in style like a series of journal entries and letters (unsent), tells the story of well a dozen women which makes it feel less intimate. It is really interesting to see how the various characters struggled to adjust to their new life- some of them who really were intent on converting the Cheyenne people to christianity or teaching them to be more like the europeans, failed bitterly and were dissatisfied with their situation. Others like May Dodd who came with a more open mind and were willing to learn from their new companions became content with their new lives.

May finds that the tribal people are more kind and forgiving in some ways than the whites who despise them, but in other ways they act very cruel- especially to enemy tribes. Given the reason why the women went to live there, there is an awful lot of preoccupation with sex- I swear almost every chapter it was discussed in one way or another. But the voice of the main character, telling everything in her journal, sounds very true to its time, so she describes everything with a certain amount of discretion. It never gets terribly distasteful. Just tiresome. There was plenty of material about the toil of everyday life, new skills they had to learn, efforts to find game, friction with enemy tribes and white soldiers, etc. But you can never really forget what the main subject matter is, she brings it up all the time…. Overall, a very interesting story.

Rating: 3/5
436 pages, 1988

by Benjamin Capps

When she is only nine years old, the small homestead where Helen lives with her family on the edge of the frontier is attacked by a Comanche band. Helen and her little sister are taken captives. At first they fear for their lives, but are sold by their captors as slaves into different families within the band. Helen wants to escape but soon realizes how hopeless this is as they travel farther away from white settlements. She steels herself to make the best of her situation, to appear compliant so she can gain the trust of the Comanches and take an opportunity in the future. Helen gradually learns the language and customs of the band. She comes to be treated more as a family member than a slave. She watches her sister grow up among the native children- too young to remember her origins. As the years pass, opportunities present themselves for her escape, but Helen hesitates each time- wanting to bring her sister, waiting for a better moment- until at last she finds she is completely assimilated into the tribe, no longer sure she even wants to escape.

I was surprised at how much I liked this story, even though the writing is rather straightforward and the timeline passes quickly. At first I thought it might be considered a YA or even J Fiction book, but it turns out there are a few brutal scenes that were difficult to read. Helen finds that the Comanches are not \’dumb savages\’ as her father\’s folk used to say- but neither are they all kindness. They have their own prejudices against other tribes and torture captives. Larger events pass by and Helen hears rumors of warfare among the whites- later they notice the wildlife is diminishing in certain areas and acting strangely in others. They hear even worse rumors of other tribes being forced to leave their land by \”treaties\” made with the whites. Helen never dreams that these rumors will affect the life she has come to know.

Mostly it is a story of everyday life among ordinary people. The family relationships, the daily work for food and shelter, their travels to different parts of the territory at various times of year, their interactions with other tribes. The games that children play, the stories they tell. One of the more interesting characters I though was the medicine man- who apparently wasn\’t a very good medicine man at all- how his standing among the tribe began to slip and how that affected his son who was coming of age. Also a shift in leadership. And Helen\’s own act of bravery when she saw all their work for winter food being despoiled by a warrior from a rival tribe . . .

A very good story, one that has me looking for other books by the same author.

Rating: 3/5      247 pages, 1966


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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