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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Flight of the Sparrow, by Amy Belding BrownConnie begins a week of posts from our Outreach Division:

I’m not sure why I picked up this book to read. I like historical fiction but I was never very interested in the Puritan era. The subtitle “A Novel of Early America” and the fact that the story was loosely based on a captive narrative written by Mary Rowlandson did catch my attention.

Mary Rowlandson, a Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan, was captured by a local Native American tribe during King Philip’s War. As a slave, her story intersects with James Printer, a Nipmuc Indian who was raised in the Puritan culture, and apprenticed as a printer. James Printer belonged to a group of Native Americans who had converted to Christianity and were known as “Praying Indians.”

I found the story mesmerizing and along with the author’s note and reader’s guide at the end, I learned more about the Puritans, Native Americans and life in Colonial America. Without giving any more of the storyline away, this fast paced and compelling book made learning about a sad and difficult period of Native American and colonial history interesting. I would recommend this book to people who like to learn about other cultures and ways of life, as well as people interested in history. I think it would make an interesting book group choice as well.

Check the WRL catalog for Flight of the Sparrow

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surprisingly-lurid-thane-coverIf you’ve already read the Williamsburg series, you can have a good laugh at this cover, which has a very noir, “Philip Marlowe in Colonial Williamsburg” feel that is completely unlike the actual novels. (Let me take a moment to picture Humphrey Bogart in a tricorn hat… OK, moving on.)

Elswyth Thane’s old-fashioned family saga begins in our own home town of Williamsburg in 1771. Julian Day, a schoolmaster newly arrived from England, is a staunch defender of King George, but befriends St. John Sprague despite his views on colonial independence. As revolution approaches, Day’s loyalties conflict with his friendships, including one with Tabitha “Tibby” Mawes, a young girl he helps to raise from poverty to gentility. That’s right: they are enemies “even in love!”

May-December romances are a recurring theme of this series, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tibby and Julian become the matriarch and patriarch of a family which the novels follow for generations. Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles, Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, and Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy seem to be leading a return of great, multigenerational sagas, those books with family trees on the endpapers to help you remember the cast of characters. Elswyth Thane was there first, and her seven-volume series follows the entangled Day, Sprague, Murray, and Campion families on both sides of the Atlantic, from the American Revolution to the early days of WWII. (At the time Thane was writing, this was recent history.)

Genteel, involving stories, these novels are gentle reads: there is love and war, but not sex or violence. Their age (or mine) shows in places; the Civil War-era episodes have a Margaret Mitchell-like nostalgia for Southern plantation life that is not concerned with the system of slavery on which it was based. My favorite, Ever After, takes place during the Spanish American War and covers every highlight of romance and melodrama that one might wish: War! Journalism! Malaria! A locket hiding a portrait of a forbidden love! When I picked it up after a decades-long gap, I expected to find it less readable, but hours later I was still sitting in the same armchair, caught up all over again in doomed romance and tearful deathbed goodbyes.

Check the WRL catalog for Dawn’s Early Light.

The series continues with Yankee Stranger, Ever After, The Light Heart, Kissing Kin , This Was Tomorrow, and Homing.

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epitaphBack in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.

As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.

In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.

Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph

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swanWhatever happened to legendary Worlds’ Fairs and International Expositions? Some left their mark on the landscape. Some became cultural icons long after they ended. Some turned up in unexpected places. Was the idea killed by the Cold War, by television, by this?

For the characters in Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, the 1898 World’s Fair is the centerpiece of their lives. ‘Ferret’ Skerritt, ventriloquist, literary illusionist, and minor prestidigitator, narrates the tale of that summer, when he fell in love with the mysterious Cecily, discovered the secret she carried in her carpetbag, lost her to millionaire Billy Wakefield, and escaped in a hot air balloon to become the spiritual center of desperate Nebraska farmers.

Like most World’s Fairs, Omaha’s is an illusion, and illusion is at the heart of the story. The gliding alabaster swans are poorly painted and chipped; the marvelous buildings are caked in glass fragments to make them glisten; and daylight reveals the midway’s tawdriness. Everything is false. Except Ferret’s love for Cecily, which he knows is true. Unfortunately, other people are better at manipulating reality or creating illusions far more intricate than Ferret’s basic honesty can conjure.

There’s a sense of doom that pervades the story, but it ends on a redemptive note. Along with the universe of marvelous characters and settings that Schaffert creates, that ultimately makes it an uplifting read.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Swan Gondola

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eagleReaders’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.

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PalaceOfSpiesThis lively young adult historical adventure is set in 1716, at the English court of George I, which is a refreshing change from the Tudors and Elizabethans I am usually reading about.

In the course of one spectacularly bad week, Margaret “Peggy” Fitzroy is forcibly engaged to a man she’s never met, assaulted in a greenhouse by the same young lout, and rescued by an enigmatic figure who claims that her late, lamented mother was not just another pretty face in the English court, but also actively supplying intelligence to he and his associates. When Peggy refuses to marry as told, she’s thrown out on the streets, and therefore throws herself upon the mercy of this man who knew her mother. Peggy agrees to be made over as his ward and placed as a maid of honor to Caroline, Princess of Wales, where she can report back on the doings of the court. To this end, she’s given a new identity and trained in the skills she’ll need as a lady in waiting: flattery, witticisms, cheating at cards, and sizing up someone’s wealth by the quality of the cloth and lace in their outfit.

Peggy has somehow forgotten to ask one important question: Hanover or Stuart?

Are her mysterious employers loyal to King George I and the House of Hanover, or are they among the rebellious supporters of exiled James II, “king over the water”? Between unexpected suitors and unexpected enemies among the royal household, it’s pretty likely that Peggy will be found out, and while being unmasked will certainly mean disgrace, being unmasked as a spy for Jacobite conspirators will get her beheaded for treason.

Peggy Fitzroy is a vivacious narrator, particularly when skewering ladies’ fashion. Being imprisoned in a mantua plus a ton of ribbons and furbelows makes it difficult to break into houses and run for her life! Fortunately Peggy is a great improviser with whatever weapon comes to hand, be it a ladies’ fan or a fireplace poker. Her adventures would be a good bet for readers of Y. S. Lee’s Agency series or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.

Check the WRL catalog for Palace of Spies.

The series continues with Dangerous Deceptions

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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