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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

JacketI wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.

Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.

Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.

Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult  and ultimately rewarding one for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory

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JacketAh, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.

In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.

Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.

Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures.  Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.

Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country

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Sea of PoppiesIn south and east Asia in the nineteenth century, opium was everything, not just a drug that had a social impact on society, but the basis of a large economy and the source of fortune for colonial empire builders. That’s the world where Amitav Ghosh sets his epic historical trilogy that begins with Sea of Poppies.

One has to enjoy being immersed in a new and complicated setting to enjoy these books. As the story opens, we quickly meet many characters: a young wife whose ex-soldier husband is so addicted that he can no longer work his job in the opium factory, their low-caste neighbor who is a gigantic ox-cart driver, a mulatto American seaman making a surprising rise in the world, an orphaned Frenchwoman, a somewhat pampered raja whose riches and position have become precarious, and many others. As these characters come from many social levels, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations, even their language is a riot of different styles, jargon, and levels of formality. It’s a rich story that engages all of the senses and hurls the readers headlong into a very different time and place.

My advice? Enjoy the swim. Use the glossary to solve your worst confusions and let the novel flow forward. It eventually coalesces, as all of our major characters find their way to the Ibis, a ship crossing the sea to China where some go as criminals, some as coolie workers, and others as soldiers to fight in the Opium Wars. On the ship, their stories come together into a more central strand. Ghosh has begun a masterwork, an epic tale about an epic subject that most readers won’t find familiar, featuring character types they haven’t before encountered. It works because it is an involving story and its hard not to sympathize with the plights of the characters. The language is lush and finishes the trick: transporting the reader successfully away.

The story continues with River of Smoke and is due to conclude with Flood of Fire later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Poppies

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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Eye of the Red TsarThe assassination of the Romanovs is re-worked into an exciting period thriller in this series opener by Sam Eastland. The Eye of the Red Tsar is both the title of the book and the nickname for the lead character, a Finn named Pekkala. The novel opens in 1929, eleven years after the death of the Tsar. Pekkala, once Nicholas II’s right-hand man in matters of secrecy and security, has been held in a work camp, kept available to Stalin should the right opportunity present itself. As the book opens, it has: New evidence about that night has come up, and only Pekkala has the inside information to confirm or deny it.

To complicate matters, the man sent to fetch Pekkala from imprisonment is his own estranged brother, a ne’er-do-well now risen in the Soviet bureaucracy. With great reluctance Pekkala is lured to the case, partly by curiosity, partly through the possibility that one of the Romanovs may have survived. But is he just being used to lead Stalin to the Tsar’s never recovered treasure?

It’s a fascinating premise, and Eastland re-creates the atmosphere of the early Stalinist period believably. He alternates between a journey across a strange Russian landscape (one of my favorite bits involved a show town, built to show off the successes of socialism to visitors) and flashbacks to the story of how Pekkala fell out with his brother, came to Tsar Nicholas II’s attention, and then followed him until the fateful night.

Eastland has continued his series through five books to date, following Pekkala’s charmed but difficult life up to WWII times so far. It’s a consistently enjoyable exploration of a time and place in history where one didn’t have to look far for suspenseful twists of fate.

Check the WRL catalog for Eye of the Red Tsar

Or try it as an audiobook on CD

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fireopalI picked up this Young Adult book for the new themed book discussion we have going at the library.  April’s topic was Elizabethan England. The English invasion of Ireland, and Ireland’s support by Spain provide important plot points for the book.

Maeve is the daughter of a fisherman. One night while walking home, she sees a lady in white who gives her two potions – one to protect her mother and the other to protect herself.  An unfortunate encounter with the town bully breaks the bottle with her mother’s potion. Without the potion to protect her, Maeve’s mother eventually falls into a coma-like state. When her sister succumbs to the same condition, Maeve must go on a quest to save them.

Maeve’s quest to free her mother and sister is intertwined with an ancient conflict between the goddess Danu and the Valkyrie warrior Uria. The  story was made richer by these elements of Irish folklore.

The book has a lot going on. Her brothers join the resistance fighting English solders; a Spanish ship is wrecked off the coast, and Maeve nurses one of the sailors back to health. On top of it all she keeps firm her belief that her mother will get well. All the little details and descriptions made the story more enjoyable for me.  And I liked the way the myths and Maeve’s current day mixed and influenced one another.

Looking for books with quests, princesses, or mythology? You may also enjoy:

Check the WRL catalog for The Fire Opal

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WinnieAnyone coming from Winnipeg is well aware that the most famous of all bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, was named after that Canadian city. Many people know that the real Christopher Robin visited the real Winnie Bear at London Zoo, but London is thousands of miles away from Winnipeg, so the connection back to Canada is not well-known, even to fans of the Bear of Little Brain. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh sets out to change this grave lack!

For the youngest of readers as well as for the staunchest of fans the book does a wonderful job of capturing the amazing details of Winnie Bear’s life. It all started during World War I when a Canadian solider, Harry Colebourn, impulsively bought an orphaned bear cub when his troop train stopped briefly in Ontario. Despite the astonishment and doubts of his officers he promised to look after their new, small, brown mascot, named Winnipeg after their regiment’s home city. Harry was a veterinarian and his job was looking after the army’s horses and to his surprise Winnie fitted in well with the normally skittish horses. Harry’s regiment took Winnie along with them on their troop ship to England, but thought France would be too dangerous for the small bear, so Winnie lived out his days at London Zoo, as a bear so friendly that children were allowed to ride on his back.

Warmly illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss, this short book is a must-read for Winnie-the-Pooh fans of all ages. It is great for the whole family to share as older readers will enjoy the author’s note and pore over the historic photographs of the real bear and his real people. Very young Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be fascinated by the connection between their bear who is a toy and a real wild animal.

Check the WRL catalog for Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

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The Ship of Brides, by Jojo MoyesBarbara continues our week of posts from WRL’s Outreach Services Division:

At the end of the Second World War there were many Australian war brides waiting to be reunited with their new British husbands. JoJo Moyes’s newest book, The Ship of Brides, chronicles the fictionalized journey. Based on the HMS Victoria’s 1946 passage from Sydney, Australia to Plymouth, England, the 650 female passengers, expecting transport via more luxurious accommodations, find themselves aboard a naval aircraft carrier, complete with planes, arms, and naval officers, heading towards their new life.

The four central characters of the story could not be more different: Jean, a teenager; Avice, a socialite; Frances, a former war nurse; and Margaret, a pregnant farm girl. This foursome, assigned to the same berth, is suddenly thrust together in intimate living quarters and faces the long, six-week voyage to their new lives. Add all-male officers and ship crew to the mix, along with a small group of WSO (Women’s Ship Officers) sent to chaperone the War Brides, and you have an interesting setting to explore the trials and tribulations faced by the temporary residents aboard the HMS Victoria. As with all groups of strangers, each individual brings his or her past, gradually revealed as their time together elapses.

Excerpts from newspaper articles, journal entries, ship’s logs, and other documents provide historical grounding for this fictionalized account of a true event. I recommend The Ship of Brides as a book group selection. The story provides a glimpse into the war brides’ anticipatory journey, filled with the hopes, dreams, and fears in a world yet unknown to them.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ship of Brides

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