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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

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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Hell at the BreechTom Franklin is a logical heir to William Faulkner, or more recently, Cormac McCarthy, powerful writers who explore the violent world of the American South through character-driven historical fiction. Perhaps even more than those other two greats, Franklin derives his tales from real historical events.

The subject of Hell at the Breech is the Mitcham War, fought in rural Alabama in 1897. Comparatively wealthy townfolk had been exploiting sharecroppers, and the resulting resentment boiled over into violence when Arch Bledsoe, a man-of-the-people political candidate, was mysteriously murdered. This killing was used as an excuse for violence by the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, a secret society of thugs who had been terrorizing their sharecropper neighbors into compliance. They went into town in a series of robberies and brutal raids, which in turn inspired a vigilante posse from town to ride roughshod into the countryside, attacking anyone unlucky enough to fall in their path.

Franklin’s novel is given extra dimension by wonderful characters. Tooch Bledsoe is a country Machiavelli, a gifted manipulator of men who leads the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Mack Burke is a 15-year-old, apprenticed to Tooch under mysterious circumstances to work at his country store. He’s trying to do the right things, but unsure of what those are, and he carries the weight of a secret about the murder of Tooch’s step brother Arch. Billy Waite is the aging, decent sheriff–one of the few power figures from town who isn’t out to exploit the sharecroppers–sent into danger to investigate Bledsoe’s murder. These are the lead characters, but Franklin populates his story with a great variety of larger than life ne’er do wells.

This isn’t for everyone. Franklin will challenge your conception of ethics. There are no easy answers and nobody in his novel is blameless. Violence is a way of life for these people. You know you’re in for a dark ride when the opening chapter concerns a boy being instructed by his mother to drown a sack full of puppies. If you can handle that kind of darkness, you’ll find this a rewarding read, a believable if operatic look at the dark heart of the wild days of early America.

Check the WRL catalog for Hell at the Breech

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OracleI knew that Judith Merkle Riley wrote historical fiction with strong female characters and a hint of the occult. These qualities put her on my “to be read” list. But that she had written a novel about “The Affair of the Poisons,” a macabre scandal from the age of Louis XIV, put her on the “move aside, all other books, I must read this immediately” list. What this says about me, I leave to the speculation of the reader.

Geneviève Pasquier, a serious young gentlewoman of the 1600s, isn’t a likely candidate to become a seer. She prefers reading Descartes and the Roman stoics to brewing love potions or telling fortunes. But when an assault forces her from her dysfunctional family home, she is adopted into a shady network of crystal gazers and amateur pharmacists who make their living on the fringes of respectable Paris.

Young Geneviève reinvents herself as the Marquise de Morville, a supposedly-150-year-old widow who stomps about Paris crankily lamenting the good old days of Henri IV and reading her customers’ futures in a basin of water. She refers customers to her colleagues for love spells, beauty elixirs, and other, less savory services–pins in a wax doll, a black mass, or a discreet abortion. Business is good, but her mentor, a Donna Corleone known to history as La Voisin, has ambitions that carry her protégé into dangerous circles, among the cutthroat “gilded wolves” of Versailles and the would-be mistresses of the king.

Geneviève’s visions of the future are the only paranormal aspect to a historical fantasy that is otherwise chockablock with historical detail. Riley is the kind of writer who never refers generically to a “carriage” when she can refer specifically to a sedan chair, a fiacre, or a vinaigrette. While many of the characters are historical, the secondary, fictional characters are equally entertaining. Pages from the ending I was already writing in my head the further adventures of Sophie, the ladies’ maid who conveniently becomes “possessed” by one of the ranking powers of Hell when she doesn’t feel like doing the chores (“Astaroth didn’t like dusting because he refused to bend over”).

This was a great blend of chills, history, and even some romance. For another entertaining police caper in old Paris, you could try Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower. If you’re more interested in history than fiction, don’t miss Anne Somerset’s scholarly-but-dishy The Affair of the Poisonswhich covers this episode specifically, or The Poisoner’s Handbookwhich covers poisoners and their “inheritance powders” in general.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oracle Glass

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doigChristmastime is always a good opportunity for some re-reading, and this past holiday season I went back to one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ivan Doig. Doig is a masterful chronicler of the lives of those people who settled and built their lives in the Montana territory (and later the state).

English Creek tells the story of one 1930s summer in the life of fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill, son of strong parents with deep Montana roots. Much of the action in this coming of age novel is driven by the split between Jick’s parents and his older brother, Alec, over Alec’s desire to forgo college to be a cowboy. Stubbornness on both sides catches Jick in the middle, and he finds himself unable to reconcile his parents and brother, despite his best efforts.

Doig has a deep affection for both his characters and for the Montana landscape. He makes both come alive for the reader. Doig also clearly understands how the past affects the present, and English Creek is filled with storytellers who remember the history of the families of Montana’s Two Medicine country and how that history has shaped current events.

There is humor here, and sorrow, and as Jick learns more about his parents’ early lives and about his brother’s longing to live his own life he begins to chart his own path to adulthood. Doig takes a look at the earlier history of the Two Medicine country in the second novel in the series, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and brings the story up to date in Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.

Check the WRL catalog for English Creek

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North RiverIf you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.

Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.

But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.

Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.

Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.

If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.

Check the WRL catalog for North River

Read North River in large print

Or try North River as an audiobook on CD

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CyranoFor his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.

De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.

Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.

While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.

Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.

Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac

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