Posts filed under 'Historical Fiction'
Zarité, known as Tété, was born into slavery in the colony of Saint-Domingue on the island that is now Haiti. Enslaved Africans and people of mixed race, like Tété, were often worked to death in a matter of months on the brutal sugarcane plantations of Saint-Domingue. Tété, however, was lucky. She was purchased by Toulouse Valmorain to care for his insane wife and their young son, not to work the fields. And all she had to put up with was Valmorain’s unwanted sexual attentions. Valmorain, conflicted about slavery, comes to rely deeply on Tété while never quite accepting her as his equal, or even as quite human. When the slave uprising that will eventually give birth to the first free black republic of Haiti breaks out, Tété is instrumental in saving the lives of Valmorain, his legitimate son Maurice, and their illegitimate quadroon daughter Rosette. The family flees first to Cuba, and, later, relocates to the bustling, vibrant city of New Orleans, where Tété seeks freedom for herself and the beautiful, though spoiled, Rosette.
Well-researched, detailed, and vivid, Island Beneath the Sea is a far-reaching tale of a way of life that, though ended, still has repercussions today.
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March 22nd, 2011
Julie, an American, must go to Italy to retrieve the contents of a safe deposit box left to her by her mother. What she finds is not the treasure she was told to expect, but rather fragments of old documents, a notebook, a crucifix, and a paperback copy of Romeo and Juliet. Julie doesn’t have much to fall back on, so more out of need of a fortune rather than sheer curiosity, she embarks on a quest to discover just what the contents of the box mean.
The critics called this “a women’s Da Vinci Code“. I can understand why they say that, but I think it does an injustice to this novel. While both novels involve historical intrique and puzzles to be solved, Dan Brown’s book was very much a race against the clock with little in the way of character development or relationship building among the characters. It’s a historical thriller. In Juliet, Fortier gives us an unusual twist on a Shakespearean story and while there are some questions to be answered and things that must happen in order to erase an ancient curse, we don’t get the feeling that we are on the clock and along the way there are characters that come to life, relationships that develop and a romance between a contemporary Juliet and Romeo. Fortier’s novel does not have the pace of a thriller, and takes its time revealing its secrets. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, romance, and intrigue.
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January 25th, 2011
In the far future, science has perfected both immortality and time travel. However, immortality can only be gained through a complex series of invasive operations with the end result being more cyborg than human. Time travel, too, has limitations: one can only go backwards in time, and then forward again to one’s starting time; and recorded history cannot be changed. However, the Company, also known as Dr. Zeus, who perfected both of these techniques, realized that UNrecorded history could be their playground. They began sending operatives back in time to recruit orphans to become the Company’s operatives. These orphans were given the immortality cyborg treatments, trained extensively, and set loose in the hidden bits of history to rescue artworks, animals, plants, and cultures from extinction, so that, in the future, Dr. Zeus could miraculously discover or recreate them…and make a lot of money doing so.
Mendoza, a young orphan taken by the Spanish Inquisition, is one of those immortal operatives of the Company. For her first mission as a botanist for Dr. Zeus, she is sent, along with the man who rescued her from the Inquisition and a small team of other immortals, to the Garden of Iden, a typically British folly containing rare and unusual botanical specimens. Her mission is to retrieve samples of the many now-extinct plants, most of which have medical applications in the future. But she didn’t expect to encounter someone like Nicholas Harpole–a strong, passionate, intelligent mortal man who serves as secretary to Iden’s owner–and she makes the worst mistake possible for an immortal: she falls in love with a mortal. When Nicholas is captured as a heretic and sentenced to be burned at the stake, Mendoza must choose between the man she loves and her own immortal mission.
Replete with vibrant historical detail, brimming with insightful social commentary, and possessing some truly engaging characters, “In the Garden of Iden” is engrossing. And since it is only the first in a series about the immortal agents of the Company, fans will have a lot more to look forward to.
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January 3rd, 2011
Countess Erzsébet Bathory, known to history as the Blood Countess, is almost as infamous as another noble from the region, Prince Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Dracula. Like that of Dracul, Bathory’s story is often conflated with stories of vampirism, though most consider her to have been the most prolific female serial killer in history.
The story begins as Erzsébet, having been walled up in a room in her own castle as punishment for her crimes, begins writing a memoir of sorts intended for her son. She believes herself to be innocent, that what have been termed “crimes” and “murders” were in fact the justifiable punishments of actual criminals, and that she has been betrayed for political gain. Erzsébet begins by detailing her girlhood and her early marriage to Count Ferenc Nadasdy. Erzsébet, a very well-educated young woman, was often alone in the castle while her husband was at war. Knowing that, given a chance, the servant girls would take advantage of a kind mistress, Erzsébet ruled her household with an iron hand, just as Ferenc ruled his troops. Believing herself magnanimous and generous, Erzsébet lavished attention on those few servants whom she believed good and loyal, and meted out cruel and unusual punishments on those who were not. After her husband’s death, 29 years after their marriage, Erzsébet’s need to control her household only increased as she was a woman alone without the strong political and military presence of a man. Seeking to make alliances, she made only enemies until finally, backed both literally and figuratively against a wall, she was captured, accused of the horrific murders of dozens of women and girls, and walled alive into a small room.
Erzsébet’s matter-of-fact narration of her life lulls the reader into believing, at least on the surface, that all of her actions were reasonable and justified. Only as the violence and madness begin to escalate does the reader begin to realize just how twisted Erzsébet’s outlook on life really is. The true creepiness here is not Erzsébet’s cruelty, but how her rationality and intelligence masked her madness so long and so well.
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December 28th, 2010
When Queen Elizabeth’s personal playwright and spy, Christopher (Kit) Marlowe is murdered by a rival faction, the relatively unknown young playwright William Shakespeare is recruited to take his place. Will is tasked with writing plays whose enthralling magic will help bolster the strength of Queen and country, while at the same time he is forced to play at politics and espionage and must attempt to avoid the knives that murdered his friend Kit. Kit Marlowe, however, is not truly dead. He was spirited away to the land of Faerie, his wounds healed, and a magic construct left behind in place of his body. Awakening in Faerie in the rooms of Morgan le Fay, Kit, an old hand at playing politics, finds himself embroiled in the dangerous yet familiar politics of the Faerie Court. Magically bound to Morgan, Kit must also renounce his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and swear oaths to Queen Mebd, the ruler of the Faeries of the Seelie Court. The strength of Faerie and the strength of the “iron world” of humans are linked, and if Queen Elizabeth were to fall, Queen Mebd would as well, and vice verse. So both Kit and Will are fighting the same battles in both worlds, weaving magic with their words to preserve the linked realms and the sister Queens.
Intelligently weaving together the literature of the Elizabethan playwrights, the history and language of the era, and British folklore, the two books of the Stratford Man duology are masterful. Highly recommended.
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Ink and Steel
Hell and Earth
December 26th, 2010
While waiting for the train taking him to military training, young and frustrated artist Claude Monet spies a lovely young woman in tears. Captivated by her energy, he sketches her quickly, little realizing that she will one day become his muse and partner. It is several years before he re-encounters her working in a bookshop and manages to convince her to pose for him, thus beginning a whirlwind romance between the two. Camille Doncieux is a young woman of good family, with good prospects, and her parents vehemently disapprove of her relationship with Claude Monet—at that time a penniless artist struggling for recognition while remaining true to his new, and unpopularly revolutionary, painting style. But Camille perserveres in her affection for Claude, becoming his lover, the mother of his child, and, eventually, his wife. It is in many ways a happy life. They are wrapped in the bosom of their friendships—fellow struggling artists Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Frederic Bazille, Camille Pissaro, Paul Cezanne, and Edgar Degas, among others, share studio space and provide affection and support for each others’ work. However, it is not an easy life for Camille and Claude, despite their great love. Claude is constantly broke and living beyond his means, living on credit, the kindness of friends, and sporadic income from sold paintings. Camille is moody and turbulent at times, frustrated in her own artistic ambitions and crushed under the weight of childcare and long separations from Claude. But their love is so great that they persevere together, with Claude eventually painting Camille’s last moments in a controversial work that is today considered one of his greatest.
Touching, and rich with historical detail, Claude & Camille is enjoyable on many levels. Those with an interest in the life of one of Impressionism’s greatest painters will find much to engage their curiosity, as will those with a broader interest in the historical time period and place.
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December 1st, 2010
Weisgarber’s debut is the story of struggling homesteaders in 1917, told from the perspective of a woman–wife of one of the few African-American homesteaders in South Dakota. Rachel Dupree has never had it easy. Growing up in Chicago, daughter of a former slave, Rachel works hard for a living in the kitchen at Mrs. Dupree’s boarding house. When Rachel meets Mrs. Dupree’s handsome son, home on leave from the army, she finds a way to convince him to marry her and take her away from the drudgery. What she doesn’t understand are the brutal hardships ahead as a homesteader’s wife.
This books deals, in part, with race relations in a historical setting, and from this perspective, fans of The Help and Mudbound will find some similarities as a readalike. This novel of a woman’s experience in the west should also strike a chord with those who enjoyed Jim Fergus’ novel: One Thousand White Women or Jonis Agee’s The River Wife.
Find The Personal History of Rachel Dupree in our catalog.
November 25th, 2010
In the great epic poem the Aeneid, the character of Lavinia, Latin wife to Aeneas, never utters a word. In fact, she is barely even described. Le Guin here sets out to rectify the situation, fleshing out the character into a real, complex person in her own right, rather than the mere plot device she served as in Virgil’s poem. Le Guin succeeds wonderfully.
Here we have the beautiful, strong-minded, and spiritual princess Lavinia of Latinum, only surviving child to King Latinus and his queen, Queen Amata. The childhood deaths of their sons has unhinged Amata and driven a wedge between mother and daughter, but Lavinia and Latinus are close. As Lavinia approaches a marriageable age, Amata becomes fixated on marrying Lavinia to her nephew, Turnus, the ambitious king of a neighboring kingdom. It would be a good match politically, but Lavinia fears both her mother’s motives for the marriage and also Turnus’. Besides which, while on a spiritual vigil in her youth, Lavinia received visions from none other than Virgil himself in which he, near death in his own time and place, bemoaned the fact that he had so slighted her in his poem and foretold her marriage to the great king Aeneas. Thus spiritually armed against her mother’s crazed insistence, Lavinia chooses to make her own destiny on the day the Trojan Aeneas’s black ships sail up the Tiber toward the land that will one day become Rome.
Lyrically beautiful, wonderfully detailed and well-researched, Lavinia is a triumph from an author already worthy of acclaim. Highly recommended.
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November 17th, 2010
It is the 1930s and the town of Threestep, Georgia, has a new teacher in their one-room schoolhouse, and 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff thinks she’s the best thing ever to happen to their town. Not everyone agrees, however, Miss Spivey being a somewhat unconventional woman in that time and place. She smokes, wears hiking boots, has traveled all over the world, and knows how to drive. But her true passion is the Middle East and all its culture, language, and literature. Slowly but surely, she begins to introduce her students to Baghdad and the Thousand and One Nights. When she hits on the idea of transforming Threestep into Baghdad and throwing a “Baghdad Bazaar,” she begins to get into some real trouble. One other way that Miss Spivey is unconventional is that she believes wholeheartedly in desegregation and she enlists the assistance of a brilliant polymath neighbor of Gladys—who happens to be a young African American boy named Theo—in building her sets and contraptions for a performance from the Thousand and One Nights during the Baghdad Bazaar. For some of the more conservative townsfolk, that is the last straw and they make their own, darker, plans for the night of the Bazaar.
Rich with historical detail—both of a small town in the American South and of the ancient Middle East—this novel is wide-ranging and charming. Some of the best portions deal with the complicated backstory of a camel driver enlisted for the Bazaar and are told in a very Scheherazade-style nested format, with one story leading into another until finally the readers are swept miles and centuries away. Though set in a slightly different time and place, this should also appeal to fans of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.”
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November 5th, 2010
Fifteenth century Venice is almost a character in its own right in this lush and vibrant historical which weaves together the lives and experiences of several characters as they struggle to introduce books printed on Gutenberg’s revolutionary press to a city only excited by beauty and novelty. The von Speyer brothers, German-born printers, move to Venice to peddle their books and are granted a temporary monopoly on the market. When the eldest brother takes ill and dies, taking the monopoly with him into the grave, it falls to Wendelin, the younger and less imaginative of the two, to continue the business. Wendelin is completely in love with his young, vibrant, superstitious Venetian wife, Lussièta—and she with him, until the day he brings home a cabinet that once stood in a house she is convinced to be haunted and cursed.
Wendelin’s young protégé, Bruno, has love problems of his own. He is obsessed with Sosia Simeon, a Serbian Jew married to a local doctor. Married or not, however, Sosia herself is obsessed with bedding as many Venetian-born men as possible, perhaps to prove her own worth to herself, perhaps for an earthier reason. Her exploits form a backdrop to the struggles of the rest of the characters as she makes her conquests from the ranks of Venetians of all social classes and professions.
Also informing the story are the earthy and overtly sensual poems of the Roman Catullus. Letters written to his brother are interspersed, in which Catullus discusses his own obsessional romance with Clodia, a woman much like Sosia. Wendelin, meanwhile, debates the merits of publishing an edition of Catullus’s poetry. Possessing all the qualities Venetians love, such an edition could save his struggling printing house. But being controversial, it could, instead, prove his ruin.
Rich and enchanting, rife with historical detail and yet mixed with flights of pure authorial fantasy, “The Floating Book” is a delight.
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October 17th, 2010
Lavender…La to her friends…is a widow living a quiet, simple life in the Suffolk countryside, far from the more glamorous and intellectual life she’d lived in London before her husband first betrayed her and then died in an accident. Retreating to Suffolk to put her life back together had seemed a grand idea at first, but she soon began to feel somewhat at loose ends. When World War II broke out, she dedicated herself to war work, serving as an assistant to a local farmer. Her job? The hens. When a stranded Polish airman joined her in helping out on the farm, La dared to hope that love might find her again…but Felix showed little more than friendliness toward her. Looking for ways to make a bigger difference, La hit upon the idea of putting together a village orchestra and inviting servicemen from the local base to join villagers in making enthusiastic, if amateur, music. The orchestra made her famous, becoming a huge morale-booster for all involved…except La, whose unrequited love for Felix was soon joined by suspicions that he hadn’t been entirely honest about his past.
Charming, understated, and resonant, La’s Orchestra Saves the World is perhaps not quite as layered and nuanced as McCall Smith’s popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but should satisfy nonetheless.
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September 13th, 2010
In the early years of the 20th century, young Korean girl named Regret wanted more out of life than being kept in three interior rooms of her home and then married off to a stranger of her parents’ choosing. Regret wanted education, to see the world, and to make her own plans. When the opportunity arose for Regret to become a “picture bride” in Hawaii, she jumped at the chance despite the estrangement it causes with her father.
In Hawaii, Regret finds that nothing is quite as portrayed, including her new husband. As Regret’s personal life changes, so does Hawaii as it struggles to adapt to simmering racial tension, American governance, and the pressures of developing tourism. This is an interesting historical novel covering a geographical area and time not regularly portrayed in fiction. Brennert artfully captures the history of the islands as experienced by an outsider.
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August 25th, 2010