Historical Fiction

 

 

We Germans starstarstarstarstar

by Alexander Staritt

A young British man asks his German grandfather about his experiences in the war and gets no clear answers, but after the grandfather’s death, a long letter is found addressed to his grandson which tells him the answers to his questions.

The grandfather was an ordinary foot soldier on the Eastern front, suffering not only the horrors of war but of decisions made by higher ups. He carries guilt for some things he had to do under orders and details out all the unpleasantness of what his life had become.

This is fiction and I have no way of knowing how close to factual experiences of German soldiers in WW2 it is or isn’t, but it reads with plausibility and I was definitely gripped by the story. I generally avoid WW2 stories, but this was different because of the inside perspective of the side that lost, unlike the usual British and American films that glorify a horrendous state of affairs.

Most interesting was the very human side of the story as a group of soldiers get separated from their unit with no officer and have to make decisions for their own survival as well as considering accountability for their role in the war when eventually they get home, if they do.

Foraging for food, encountering others involved in the war on both their own side and the Russians brings a series of adventures. Near the end it gets rather intense with action, but there is also philosophising of an ordinary man who happened to be born at a time and place that would require he fight for the Nazi army and see his side lose, when all he really wanted was to go home and raise a family.

Very well written.

 

The Last Refuge of the Knights Templar starstarstar

by William F. Mann

This was totally different from what I expected. I have a historical interest in the Knights Templar, who were disbanded and mostly executed in 1309. I didn’t know that the Freemasons had adopted the name for their own organisation, although I’ve seen other modern groups do the same.

This story is set in American Civil War times and centered on a historical figure called Albert Pike, who was a general in the Confederate army and a Freemason.

The writing was reasonably good, apart from some of the dialogue, but this just isn’t an area of interest for me. I feel the book is mis-titled, though I should have read the description more closely. The first few lines supported the impression that it would actually be about the Knights Templar from the title.

If someone wants to read about Civil War Confederacy and Freemasonry of the time, this should appeal. The connections to the Templars are certainly pure fiction though.

 

The Book of Echoes starstar

by Rosanna Amaka

This book starts out well with an interesting idea: The spirit of an African slave woman narrates the experiences of her descendants over 200 years. I thought the idea intriguing and really wanted to enjoy the book.

However, I found it meandering and had trouble with the jumps from one set of characters to another. It was also written in present tense, which makes it difficult to keep attention on the story.

I can’t say much more about it because apart from that beginning, very little of what I read stuck in my mind. A great idea with a scattered execution.

 

The Awakening Aten starstarstar

by Aidan K. Morrissey

I usually don’t read character lists at the beginning of a novel because in a totally fiction novel, they’re meaningless until they actually do something and I regard it as lazy writing. This one was an exception because the vast majority of the characters are really people from history, even the cat!

By the time I got to Part One I already could see that the author had done his research, and that’s a big part of what makes a historical fiction novel enjoyable to me. I especially love books set in Ancient Egypt and though I found this one a little slow moving, I enjoyed having that era brought to life for me from a different perspective than I’ve read before.

Part of me wants to give this an extra star for the historical research, but the dialogue is stiff and the story just doesn’t flow well. Still, it’s worth persevering.

 

The Parisian starstar

by Isabella Hammad

I’m always a little put off when a story starts with a list of characters. It’s not a play! While I can see that keeping the family groups straight is needed, a list is meaningless until I start getting into the story. So, I skipped past and started reading chapter one.

The protagonist is Palestinian and is on a ship to Marseille. The mixing of Middle Eastern and French culture becomes quickly apparent. I found the subject interesting and the main character sympathetic, but the writing style was tedious and I often found my attention wandering off.

Since I don’t speak French or Arabic, a lot of the lines were over my head. I’m also not that familiar with the history involved and I didn’t follow it as well as I needed to, to keep up.

Overall I think there were too many characters and not enough context to put the reader into the period.

 

Templar Silks starstarstarhalf

by Elizabeth Chadwick

I’ve enjoyed Elizabeth Chadwick novels before so requested this one because of the author. This one is about William Marshal, whom I didn’t know a lot about before reading, in the time of the Crusades. Marshal’s lord orders a raid on church riches in order to pay his mercenary soldiers as a practical move, but afterwards Marshal takes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his lord’s cloak to save both their souls.

The beginning was a little slow for me, but necessary to put events into context. Once the journey begins, Chadwick’s engaging writing style brought the characters to life and I was soon engrossed and feeling every challenge and setback as if I were there.

I also learned some history I didn’t know before, which is what I look for in Historical Fiction.

The political intrigues as an heir is sought for a dying king of Jerusalem captured me like an addictive soap opera. Everyone vying for favour and a ruler playing people, even his own sister, like chess pieces reflects the era too accurately in a time when alliances were made with marriages and positions could be won or lost through a whim of a king.

I lost a little interest as the romance angle played out and found myself wondering if it was a historical element or something the author put in to have a romance angle, but overall the story was interesting and covered a lot of historical ground.

 

Athena’s Champion starstarhalf

by David Hair & Cath Mayo

First book in the Olympus Trilogy.

This is written in present tense. I can see why in the first chapter. It gives it an ethereal, mystical past feeling and as it follows some known mythology, it could have made a good start to the story if it hadn’t carried on in present tense throughout.

As that’s what it did, it reads rather slow. The story itself is interesting so I persevered, but by 18% it was becoming a real chore.

I’m not sure how closely it follows the actual mythology as I’m not that familiar with the Greek stories, but my impression is that it’s pretty close. The plot and action are good and I liked the main character. My only problem is that it dragged terribly and could have been a really good read if it had been written properly in past tense. Why is this a thing? No Classics, NONE, are written totally in past tense!

The writing itself was very good. The authors are obviously able to write well. I just hope they progress from using present tense. Unfortunately I’ll never know because once stung with this, I never go back to the author again.

 

Tombland starstarstar

by C. J. Sansom

Book 7 of the Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series.

Set in the rebellions of 1549 during the reign of Edward VI, two years after the death of Henry VIII. The nominal king is eleven years old and his uncle, Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, rules as Edward’s regent and Protector. Catholics and Protestants are at odds and the Lady Elizabeth has a personal interest in a murder of the wife of one of her distant relatives that she sends Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in her service, to investigate.

Medieval intrigue and mystery mostly keep attention through over 800 pages that cover among other things, Kett’s Rebellion in the Tombland area of historic Norwich. These are real places and the history has been well researched. I did, however, think it was overly long. The books in this series contain a lot of detail of every move and I think it was asking a bit much to carry on with so much scrutiny for so long.

On one hand it’s a good Historical Fiction, but it’s also a murder mystery. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of murder mysteries in general and making me wait so long to find out who did it was torment! It is well done in the end though.

Those who do enjoy murder mysteries will have a great time trying to sift through the plentiful suspects and possible motives, both political and personal. The author leads us through a merry chase through all the possibilities. I did think that the final reveal was a little forced and not quite realistic, but by then I was just glad to have answers.

Daisy Jones and The Six starstarstarstar

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The story of an imaginary rock group from the early 1970s as told in interviews with the imaginary characters. This was an interesting read despite the unusual format and most of it was realistic enough that I actually checked to make sure it wasn’t a real band. The relationship between the lead singer and his girlfriend stretched believable romance a little far, but it still worked.

A lot of references to real bands and things happening in the world at the time made this as enjoyable as reading about any favourite obscure band from that era. For those of us who weren’t around to experience the times first hand, it might as well be as true as any of the documentaries about other bands.

It was very well done and the dynamics among the various band members and close associates are interesting and realistic enough to believe it all could happened. I so wanted Daisy to stop hurtling towards her own self destruction!

What was unexpected because of the format were a couple of twists near the end. I came out of reading this with the same sort of nostalgic feelings I get from real documentaries, for a place and time I’ve never been. I did wish the ending had gone one step further, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Dissolution starstarstarstarstar

by C. J. Sansom

Book 1 of the Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series.

This is the beginning of an ongoing series of Historical Mysteries that take place in the Tudor period of England. The books are all self-contained stand alone novels and the character who takes us through the progressing snippets of history is a high-level lawyer called Matthew Shardlake. In this first novel, it is 1537 and Lord Thomas Cromwell is the vicar general and supports the Reformation, as does Shardlake.

The country is divided between those who are faithful to the Catholic Church and those loyal to Henry VIII and his newly established Church of England. A murder leads Cromwell to bring in Shardlake to investigate.

Shardlake is a hunchback, which I thought was a brilliant way to bring diversity into a historical setting where not a lot of diversity existed. He is intelligent and thorough in his investigations and that can get him into some difficult situations when he uncovers uncomfortable evidence of such things as sexual misconduct, embezzlement, and treason.

Like much Historical Fiction, a lot of detail is included and it can take a while to get from one place to another. I wouldn’t call it ‘slow’ because it keeps interest and seeing events from Shardlake’s point of view works well with his detailed observations. It is basically a Mystery story, but within a historical context. The historical details look to be well-researched and accurate.

There’s also a certain amount of dramatic action, especially at the end. I thought it was extremely well done and I enjoyed reading the historical notes after the end, as I always do when a Historical Fiction novel includes them.

Most importantly, the end really is the end. The first chapter of the next story in the series is included, but each story is complete and you don’t have to buy another book to see what happened. If you enjoy a good historical mystery this is a good place to start as it develops Shardlake as a character and gives the reader some insight into how his deformity affects him as well as his thinking processes and how he came to be in his position, but after that the books could be read in any order.

A very intelligently written series.

Blackbeard – The Birth of America starstarstarstar

by Samuel S. Marquis

The introduction to this got me excited because a lot of historical information was consulted by the author that shows Blackbeard very differently than pop culture has painted him and among the sources was David Cordingly, who wrote one of the best non-fiction books about pirates I’ve ever read.

Having established that the author did his research, this is presented as Historical Fiction so I was prepared to settle back and enjoy a good pirate story, but secure in the knowledge that it was based on facts as far as they are known. The one problem was that a lot of those facts were shoehorned in and made the flow of the story a little awkward.

Still, Blackbeard comes over as a mostly sympathetic character. The early chapters read more like a history book than historical fiction, but I did get caught up in the story a few chapters in. The events and chance meetings that led Edward Thache to turn from honest naval service to piracy are put into context in a way that demonstrates that he had little choice, as so many characters from history have found themselves on the wrong side of the law through circumstances of their times.

I enjoyed getting a look inside the sequence of events that actually happened and how Thache morphed into the pirate Blackbeard and obtained the Queen Anne’s Revenge. With historical fiction about real people, you already know how it ends. It’s reading about the sequence of events that lead up to what history tells us that makes it interesting and I came out of this feeling real sympathy for Blackbeard and his reasons for turning pirate, not least of all because he preferred taking his prizes without hurting anyone when he could.

Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army

starstarstarstarstar

by Eduardo Albert

Historical fiction with humour, what’s not to love? This drew me in right away with all the tension of a Viking raid on a monastery and a protagonist who never wanted to be a monk. Conrad is funny in his totally mercenary reaction to the situation and consistently along his further adventures. I do love an intelligent character with a good sense of survival.

It’s set against a fairly accurate backdrop of history of the Viking invasions of England. Exactly what’s based on fact is explained well in a note after the story and holds some real surprises as some details that seemed unlikely turned out to be based on archaeological finds! I may have a couple of locations to visit on my travels.

The story keeps a good pace and despite his perpetual self-interest, Conrad is actually a likeable character. How he came to be a monk gets explained in the curse of the story and it’s easy to sympathise with him on that particular downturn of his constantly changing fortunes.

Best of all, the story puts believable faces to groups of people from history. Personalities among the Danes as well as historical figures bring the setting alive and I did laugh out loud at a few all too human foibles along the way.

I highly recommend this story for anyone who likes a Pratchett-like laugh, even if they don’t normally read Historical Fiction. My only complaint is the overt way in which the author lets us know there will be a series. I will be interested in the next book despite my usual disinterest series that use this tactic.

Ecstasy starstarstarstar

by Mary Sharratt

Near the turn of the 19th century, Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. Female composers are unknown at the time, though new possibilities for women are opening up. She marries Gustav Mahler, who insists she give up her music as a condition of their marriage.

I liked the writing voice on this one right away. Alma had such enthusiasm that I wanted to see her achieve her dream from the start. The story takes us through her life as a young girl, her first love and her relationship with her various family members, but especially with her music.

It’s not all upbeat though. Alma sacrifices a lot for her marriage and it’s inevitable that she will question her decisions as time goes on. Mahler himself is a challenge to deal with and it was an era when women were expected to suppress their own needs and be supportive of a husband. Alma is a naturally passionate and creative person and this state of affairs can only clash with her natural inclinations.

I enjoyed reading this, despite the unhappy parts. The narrative kept my attention, even if at times I wanted to shake Alma and tell her she was making some bad decisions.

The historical note at the end was as interesting as the story itself. Alma was a woman ahead of her time, though her unfaithfulness in her marriages would bring a lot of criticism. She weathered some difficult times and gave her love to some of the top composers of her time. Some of her own compositions can be found on YouTube and I couldn’t resist having a listen after reading this story. I found her 5 Lieder for voice and piano pretty amazing and can only imagine that if her music had been supported earlier in her life that she might have been recognised in history as one of the great composers herself, rather than just a shadow of her husband’s accomplishments.

The Fire Court starstarstarstarhalf

by Andrew Taylor

This started with a list of characters, something I always skip past. They don’t mean anything until they become a part of the story!

However, once the story began, some familiar characters from the first book of the series appeared, most notably Catherine Lovett and James Marwood. Marwood’s father, an old man without all his faculties, starts off in a sequence wherein he follows a woman thinking she is his wife, Rachel, who actually died years ago. He finds a body of a different woman and eventually discovers that the woman he followed is not Rachel.

Thus starts the mystery and intrigue that will shape the story. I found the pace a little slower in the first part of the book than in Ashes of London, the first book of the series, but still interesting and I’m glad I stuck with it as it gets better as more connections fall into place.

The pace actually gets very fast and dramatic in the later part of the book and the spiderweb of connections that have been set up throughout the story all fall into place. In a lot of ways it’s a whodunnit, but with political intrigue and a lot of very human emotions involved. It’s extremely well-written and I will be looking for a third book, which is hinted at by the very end.

The outcome surprised me not once but twice with plot twists I never saw coming. That’s pretty rare!

The Illumination of Ursula Flight starstarstarstarhalf

by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Set in the seventeenth century, Ursula Flight is an unusual girl with a curious mind and a hankering for adventure. As a child she applies herself to learning to read and to learn about the world in ways that girls of her era seldom do, then a chance meeting with an actress leads her to fascination with a vocation with a bad reputation that is outweighed by the appeal of life on the stage.

Ursula is a likeable character from the start. She’s intelligent and curious, more interested in an experience for its own merits than in ‘what people will think’. However, although her father encourages her learning, when a local Lord takes a fancy to young Ursula, her father effectively orders her to marry him. Needless to say, Ursula is not pleased with being effectively sold into marriage.

The story is mostly told in first person, so we get a look inside the thoughts of a young girl, her fancies, and her unspoken opinions all along. One of her interests is in writing plays, so we are given interludes that she has depicted as a playwrite and have to wonder how much embellishment Ursula has added to her private writings.

Facing some difficult circumstances in an era when women were treated much as property brings out the strength in the character, even through girlish fancies. The story kept me interested all the way through and made me wonder if I would have had the courage to do some of the things she does to overcome obstacles to her happiness.

The Ashes of London starstarstarstarstar

by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London is set against the Great London Fire of 1666. There are two stories intertwined. A first person narrative from James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, who is tasked to track down the killer of a mummified corpse found in St Paul’s after it has burned down, alternating with a third person account of Cat, an heiress whose father is in exile for treason who faces many of the hardships that women had to deal with in that era, rich or poor.

Cat is a strong character and intelligent. She has an aptitude for architecture that the role of women would usually squelch, but through a series of mostly unfortunate circumstances, she finds herself in a position to develop.

The changing perspectives actually work very well. There is a healthy dose of political intrigue and an element of mystery to be solved. The book held my attention and the last few chapters got into some tense action that had me glued to the pages. I’m glad I’ve got the sequel waiting for me because this was definitely one of my best reads this year!

Paris starstarstarstarhalf

by Edward Rutherfurd

Like other books written by Rutherfurd, history is illustrated within intertwining stories of people and families covering a sequence of centuries showing life and how it developed within the chosen city, in this case, Paris.

I enjoyed the book a lot, though it didn’t have quite the generational flow that some of his others did. The stories of individual characters kept me interested and seeing what happened with their descendants was reminiscent of Rutherfurd’s style in earlier books.

It is a long book, over 800 pages, and took me a long time to read through all of it, but it was time well spent. Seeing the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, plus exploring the variable feelings that local residents had about the latter, really brought the history alive. Also reading through eras of religious and political strife in France and how Paris residents were affected expanded my knowledge of history, which is part of the point of reading Historical Fiction!

Rutherfurd remains one of my favorite authors in this genre. The last few chapters took us underground in the French resistance of WW2 and although I find that era generally over saturated, I really got caught up in events, some real, some fictionalized. Rutherfurd included an afterword to differentiate which was which.

There were a few very long chapters that could do with sub-chapters, but it was a good read and kept my interest, despite the length.

Fools and Mortals starstarstarstarhalf

by Bernard Cornwell

From the well-known Historical fiction writer is a story about players, actors on the stage, in the time of Elizabeth I. Women were still played by men and the brother of Will Shakespeare, Richard, is continually given women’s roles with his brother’s company. Between getting to be too old and taking a liking to a servant girl in a great house where they are to perform, Richard tries everything he can think of to get his brother to give him a male role.

Themes of dominance between brothers are fully explored in this story and I couldn’t help but have sympathy for Richard, who, as a significantly younger brother, is constantly in his brother’s shadow.

I don’t know if Shakespeare really had a brother but I’m not going to look it up. I enjoyed this story and Richard was a likable character. Will Shakespeare came over as a callous, unfeeling brother, most of the time. Whether there i any accuracy to this is anybody’s guess.

The story gave a good look at the life of players in Shakespeare’s time and I found it was my preferred read among several books I’ve been reading at once. It is undeniably well-written and has plenty of excitement and a few laughs.

How to Stop Time starstarstarstar

by Matt Haig

This started out with a really pleasant tone, though there was a lot of ‘telling’. Sometimes that can fit the story, putting background into context. It is not about time travel, as I presumed, but about a man who has a ‘condition’ that makes him very long lived, the opposite of the premature aging diseases we’ve all heard of.

Part of the story is about his quest to find his daughter who shares the condition, but he has much to learn from others of his kind. The story unfolds slowly in the first few chapters and blossoms into questions of the meaning of life and the importance of pleasures and especially of the power of music to move the soul.

I found myself captivated by the journey through time, seeing historic periods through Tom’s eyes. He was a likeable character, though rather sad and world weary. The descriptions of what it was like to live through various times were believable and I enjoyed reading it very much.

A shock twist near the end didn’t have quite the impact on me that I think was intended. I felt it was a little rushed and there was insufficient explanation of motivation. Apart from that, the story gave me a lot of enjoyment and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone with any interest in history at all.

At the Water’s Edge starstarstarstarhalf

by Sara Gruen

The prologue starts out with a sad situation. A young woman, Mairi, has lost her baby to stillbirth, and soon after learns that her husband, a soldier in WWII, is missing, presumed dead. How this ties in with the story to come will take some time to become clear, but the reveal was worth the wait.

The story mostly concerns a group of Americans: Maddie, our pov character, and her husband Ellis, plus their friend Hank. Mention is also made of Violet, Hank’s girlfriend, but she is left behind as the other three cross the ocean in 1945 when WWII makes that a foolish idea, to go to Scotland to hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. Hank and Ellis are both unable to sign up with the military, one for color blindness and the other with flat feet.

Culture clash is immediate. Hank and Ellis come from well-off families and expect ‘service’ and luxury where the down-to-earth people one finds in a Scottish Inn expect people to look after themselves at the very least and apparently healthy young men are looked at askance if they are still civilians. The men expect ‘service staff’ to put their clothes away for them in their rooms. Maddie catches on and puts her own things away.

I grew to like Maddie. Her backstory comes out over the course of the story and her willingness and ability to adapt to the very different culture appealed to my sympathies. Her husband, on the other hand, is the epitome of the ‘ugly American’. A spoiled brat who routinely lies to his wife and treats the locals as if he is somehow better than they are. As much as there was social stigma over divorce in those days, I was thinking halfway through that Maddie really needed to get this ill-mannered beast out of her life.

One of the things I really like about this author is that she does her research. The fine details of life in that time and place lend a sense of reality. Little things like hearing about a fever going around in Inverness or looking at the newspaper and seeing stories of decimated towns next to adverts for cold cream, showing an attitude of ‘life goes on’ amidst the horrors of war on home soil.

The acknowledgements at the end show that she interviewed several people about their first hand experiences, so details like the reaction when a postman brings a telegram, a sure sign that someone has died, ring true. Also the subtle implication that women tended to fall for whatever men were available at a time when most of the young, healthy men were away in battle add to the reality of a 1945 setting.

A lot of fast action comes into the last 20% or so of the book and I found it hard to put down. The emotional roller coaster left me with a book hangover I won’t soon forget. There was some very descriptive sex, but somehow it didn’t feel like porn. Sara Gruen has definitely made it onto my favorite authors list and I will be reading more of her books in future.

other-einsteinThe Other Einstein starstarstarstarhalf

by Marie Benedict

This is Historical Fiction, but based on a real person who was the first wife of Albert Einstein and one of the few women of her time to have an education in Physics. Her name was Mileva Marić.

The story is told in first person and for me seemed very realistic, showing Mileva’s background, interaction with parents and thoughts about achieving her educational ambitions, as well as her cultural influences in dealing with expectations for women, the interest of Albert Einstein, and her treatment at the Polytecnic in Switzerland where she studied as well as her belief that a foot deformity made her ‘unmarriageable’.

I found the author’s voice very engaging and soon got caught up in her tale, even looking up a few mentions of Mileva’s life on Wikipedia. The story is mostly fiction based on bare bones scaffolding of known facts, yet it felt very plausible all the way through. Albert’s personality came across as witty and charming in the beginning and I half fell in love with him myself, but later in the story he becomes an unsympathetic character which might be less than fair to him. Still, looking up what facts are known, why didn’t he ever meet his daughter? Why did the relationship go awry in a time when divorce held almost as much stigma as unwed motherhood?

Anyone who has been in a relationship that went wrong will recognise the pattern of how these things often happen. Whether Albert used his wife’s ideas and took full credit is something history and science will probably never be able to answer, but in the time and place where it is set, it is easy to imagine that any contribution from an intelligent female would likely be subsumed by a husband with the proper qualifications.

Mileva’s life is not a happy one and history doesn’t give us a happy ending for her, but I very much enjoyed reading this story. Factual or not, the writing was very engaging and ‘m glad to know of the existence of this woman whom I had never heard of before. Whatever contributions she might or might not have contributed to Einstein’s theories, she stands out as a strong woman in history who dared to step into the male preserve of higher education, helping to forge the way for many women in generations to come. I will definitely be interested in anything else this author writes.

spyThe Spy starstarstarstar

by Paulo Coelho

This was an amazingly fast read, although it was over 200 pages. It tells the story of Mata Hari, starting with her execution and then flashing back to begin her life story and how she became who she was.

The writing, as anything by this author, flows poetically and draws the reader into its depths, involving the reader so completely in the story that it would be easy to imagine oneself as Mata Hari, sharing her experiences.

It is divided into three parts with no chapters to break it up further, but I had no trouble reading part two, about 50% of the book, in one sitting. This part took me through some quick personal history up to the beginning of the war and how a dancer got caught up in the war machine. Though an intelligent woman, one bad choice changed everything for her.

History gives us spoilers, but reading about the events that led up to the conclusion we started with was fascinating. I do need to read more by this author.

orphans-carnivalOrphans of the Carnival starstarstarstar

by Carol Birch

This turned out to be a fascinating story, though it started out a little poetic and vague. It took a chapter or two to really get into what was going on, but once the background of the main character, Julia, started coming out, I definitely wanted to keep reading.

Julia was born ‘different’. She has hair all over her face and body like fur, and the face itself appears ape-like. After her mother abandons her as a small child, she is taken care of in comfortable circumstances until the old woman who looks after her dies, then Julia sets out on her own and eventually joins a carnival freak show.

The variety of characters in the freak show provides some interesting personality quirks that come of growing up ‘different’. Julia sometime bristles at the casual way in which the other ‘freaks’ refer to her anomaly, though her sensitivity goes largely unnoticed.

Julia is like many young women and wants the same things, like nice dresses, but she is aware of the effects of her appearance and is told she will never ‘get a man’. She’s also very talented and can sing and dance, which takes her beyond just being a freak into being a valued performer.

It wasn’t until the end of the story that I learned that Julia was a real person, though the events of her life are fictionalized in the story. Wikipedia has an interesting entry about her. The story is well told and gives the reader some insight into what it must be like to grow up and live as someone who is visibly different and the treatment she gets as a result. Very poignant.

daughters of the dragonDaughters of the Dragon starstarstarstarstar

by William Andrews

This is a powerful story. It’s Historical Fiction, based closely on events that actually happened in Korea during WW2 and the Korean war and after. The story of Anna, a Korean war orphan, is fiction but much of her grandmother’s story reflects things that happened to real people.

Quite honestly, I cringed when in started out written in present tense. However, the story itself was interesting so I persevered. To my joy, I soon learned that most of the story is told by Anna’s grandmother and her history is all in past tense, so I could get sunk into it. I can sort of see how the author thought switching to present tense for Anna’s part of the story might work, but it really doesn’t. The change is too severe.

A fascinating, though unpleasant story unfolds about the Japanese occupation of Korea and the atrocious treatment of Koreans by their military occupiers. Men were taken off to war, many women were forced to work in factories, but some women were forced to become ‘comfort women’, as the book description implies. The dehumanising treatment these women received is disturbing to read, yet the historic aspect of it is gripping.

Apart from the main plot of the story, it becomes apparent that there is a mystery involved. What does it mean to be a daughter of the dragon? What does the symbol of the dragon mean? All becomes clear by the end.

This was one of those stories that once I started getting into it, I actually couldn’t stop reading. I had tears in my eyes at the end and couldn’t bring myself to start reading another book the same day. It taught me about a time and place in history that I knew little about and left me with very strong feelings about the horrors of war, the inhumanity of occupying forces and the human element in the conflicts of nations, especially the abhorrent treatment of women.

I usually mark down a star for present tense writing but not this time. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading Historical Fiction.

Winter CrownThe Winter Crown starstarstarstarstar

by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the second book in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Alienor in French, her native language. The first book, The Summer Queen, was an excellent read so I didn’t hesitate when this one came up for review. I haven’t been disappointed. If you like Historical Fiction at all, I highly recommend this series!

The Winter Crown begins with Alienor’s crowning as Queen of England, two years after her marriage to Henry, who became King Henry II of England in 1154. This occurred just eight weeks after her marriage to Louis of France was annulled. So Eleanor had been Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and became Queen of both France and England successively.

She was a strong willed woman and tended towards a spirit of rebellion against the limitations put onto the power of a woman in that time period. Eleanor faced both triumphs and tragedies in her marriages and through her children and had more political influence than women of her time could ordinarily manage.

Elizabeth Chadwick writes her characters well. Every character is well defined and we can feel both courage and cowardice in secondary characters as well as sorrow, joy, and the whole spectrum of emotions that touch the people around Eleanor, not to mention Eleanor herself. Her fears, determination, strength and sorrows are all depicted expertly and take the reader through one of the most interesting lives in history.

A lot of research went into the historical accuracy of the story as well, which is explained at the end where the author clarifies what is known historically and where fiction filled in the gaps. Apart from a couple of small anomalies, i.e. one sentence with a comma splice to a half sentence, the book is well edited and reads very smoothly. Elizabeth Chadwick is quickly becoming a favorite historical fiction author for me.

OswaldOswald: Return of the King starstarstar

by Edoardo Albert

The book begins with lists of difficult names I’ll never remember, but clarifies pronunciation and historic context. It also explains the importance of names to Anglo-Saxons and why no two will have exactly the same name, although descendants might get an adaptation of an ancestor’s name.

After the cast of characters, we get an overview of what happened in the previous book, Edwin. This is very useful for people like myself who haven’t read the first one, and also starts to give us the feel for the historic period.

Then we get to the story for this book. I want to describe it as good, but it doesn’t have the flow of really great writing. Too many sentences starting with ing verbs can put me off easily. It works in moderation but the beginning overdid it somewhat.

Once I got past that, I was able to get into the story more and appreciate the historic period and events as well as getting to know the characters. Oswald is a reasonably likeable character who would actually like to be a monk, but duty requires that he take up kingship. The pace was a little slow, but ultimately it did take me to the Historical period and the characters were well defined. I felt sympathy for Oswald’s changing fortunes and the expectations put upon him just for being born in a line of kings.

One of the strong themes in the story is the changing face of religion, as Christianity begins to take hold in a country with Pagan roots. Different factions even within the same families might worship the old gods or embrace the new faith. The latter tend to be very forceful with their opinions, rather like some modern factions.

I would recommend this story for anyone who wants to get a strong feel for Anglo-Saxon history. It is atmospheric and realistic about some of the nasty things that happen in battles without becoming overwhelmingly gory.

LightAll the Light We Cannot See starstarstar

by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those stories you hear a lot of people saying great things about, so curiosity made me read it too. It’s set just before and during World War II, and is an interweaving of two stories, though at first it seems to be short, random snippets of different people’s experience.

There are two aspects of it that didn’t set well with me. One, it’s told in present tense, which I find difficult to get into. The other is that much of it i told in such short snippets that just as you start to get into a part of the story, it switches to someone else and you have to start over. I didn’t like this format at all.

Having said that, it’s a rather poignant recollection of a dark time in history. The two main stories are about a French girl named Marie-Laure who becomes blind, and a German lad, Werner, who finds a radio and becomes adept at working and repairing electronics, a skill that the Nazis will find useful.

There were emotive recollections of terrible things that happened in the war, personalizing it. You can almost feel the experience of leaflets falling from the sky, or bombers flying overhead. The actual writing is very good, but the format kept jarring me out of the story. I’d love to see this writer do something with a straightforward narrative, because the descriptive passages were very effective.

summerqueenThe Summer Queen starstarstarstarstar

by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is a historical fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine, spelled Aileanor in the original French and for the novel. She is forced to marry the young Prince Louis of France and soon becomes the Queen of France.

She is depicted as a strong personality, but living in a time when choices for women were limited. Still, her influence on Louis is fairly strong at first and she makes the best of her situation, despite some difficulties when her younger sister begins to behave like a foolish girl and brings the risk of shame on the whole family’s reputation.

What I love about historical fictions like this is that it makes me go look up actual history to see how the details compare. Eleanor’s history is as interesting as a novel in itself. She was a strong woman who lived in a time when women were expected to defer to husbands or fathers and she was born Duchess of Aquitaine, so had position in her own right, though that had a down side in that society.

The novel is very well written and I really enjoyed following her story. There are apparently two more books, at least one already released, so I may be following the series. What I read of her history indicates that there is plenty more material to write about!

The characters were really brought to life and I will definitely be interested in other books by this author.

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