Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver

October 31, 2014

Garden of BeastsMob button man Paul Schumann is sure he’s doomed when he’s caught by the feds, but he’s given a choice – the electric chair, or one last job. The catch – his target is Col. Reinhardt Ernst, a bigwig in Hitler’s organization, which means going undercover in Nazi Germany to achieve his goal. Paul has been wanting to get out of the mob anyway, and the feds promise he’ll be free of charges and given a cash bonus when he’s finished. Dreaming of a normal life with the girl of his dreams, he heads for Germany.

This is a fascinating time in history, when a culture of fear led neighbors to betray each other and paranoia reigned. It was a time when citizens were trapped between duty to country and their own consciences, and Deaver portrays them with sympathy and humanity. Watching Paul navigate this complicated time and place, you really feel like you’re in 1936 Germany with him. He’s undercover as a journalist covering the Berlin Olympics, but spies are everywhere. After uncovering one spy while still en route, he dispatches a second almost immediately after arrival and finds himself pursued by the police. This is cat and mouse at its best, with Paul playing both roles in his quest for Col. Ernst. Deaver is a master of the plot twist, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The beauty of his stories is, even knowing there will be a twist, it’s nearly impossible to guess. I challenge you to try!

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Meet popular fiction writer Jeffery Deaver at Cameron Village Regional Library on Sunday, November 9th at 2:30 pm. He will discuss his novels, characters, writing style, and more. Q & A to follow discussion. Registration requested.

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

October 28, 2014

Midnight in EuropeCristián Ferrar is a Spanish (or rather, Catalan) émigré who lives and works in Paris, France. His employer is the law firm Coudert Frères, and the firm does a good deal of international work. Recently, some international cases have become more complicated due to the Spanish Civil War, “now in its seventeenth month; individuals and corporations cut off from their money, families in hiding because they were trapped on the wrong side – whatever side that was – burnt homes, burnt factories, with no means of proving anything to insurance companies, or banks, or government bureaucracies.”

At the same time, the way of life of the French Republic, with its deep democratic roots, is seriously challenged. Right-wing extremists rule neighboring Germany and Italy, and now the Spanish Republic is about to fall into the hands of Franco’s fascists and his conservative supporters. The Republic does not have many allies in the world – Mexico and the Soviet Union give their support, but other than that the international aid mainly consists of volunteers from around the globe; mostly workers, anti-fascists, social democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Ferrar is also willing to contribute to the cause, and when he is contacted by a general of the Republic he sees a chance to help out. German and Italian pilots have shown the world the future of warfare, and the Spanish Republic needs anti-aircraft guns to survive. Where to find them, though? The Soviet Union turns out to be the best option. But the U.S.S.R. will not sell the weaponry. The Soviets want to hold on to the firepower they have. So the equipment has to be stolen.

A small band of idealists and hired gangsters organize the job, and they will find opposition on every level: honey traps, harbor spies, and armed servants of the far right.

Again, Alan Furst creates a mosaic of a European midnight, where people who have never before met come to share path through life as a war of ideologies engulfs the continent.

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The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

October 13, 2014

The Valley of AmazementAmy Tan has written another sweeping historical novel about Chinese relationships and culture. In The Valley of Amazement, Tan invites us into a world of courtesan life from early years to retirement during a politically charged China in the early twentieth century. With lyrical beauty and harsh reality, Tan traces the lives of American-born mother, Lulu Minturn, and her half Chinese daughter, Violet. And, because it is Amy Tan, it is really a story of the mother daughter relationships and their struggle to understand each other.

The book tells its tale through the many voices of its strong women characters. In the beginning we are introduced to young Violet, our main protagonist, as she watches her mother’s life, being the owner of a respectable courtesan establishment, implode. With unforeseen circumstances, she leaves Violet standing at the boat docks as she disappears from Violet’s life, presumably on her way to the United States without her, as Violet sees it. Violet is alone and must make her way using only her wits and her mother’s teachings, and unfortunately her body, to live. Courtesan Violet falls in love, has a child, and just as her mother was ripped from her life, her daughter is ripped away when Violet’s lover dies and his vindictive family kidnaps the baby girl. Everything now is taken from her: her baby, her money, her house, her freedom. So when she finds love again she believes that this man will save her and care for her. After all, he wants to make her his wife. He isn’t truthful, and probably crazy, and she finds herself in a remote village, tortured by the man’s number one wife. In this second part of the book, Violet tries to escape so she can find her daughter and eventually, her mother.

It is a journey of pain, murder, jealousy, misunderstandings, friendship, family, but finally love, the love of mothers and daughters.

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The Flight of the Sparrow : A Novel of Early America by Amy Belding Brown

September 4, 2014

Flight of the SparrowBrown’s fictional account of a real life settler in Massachusetts is a perfect example of what historical fiction should do: open a window into a life you cannot begin to understand. Mary Rowlandson is a married woman living the good Puritan life in a small frontier settlement in 1676. Her husband, the minister, is very strict with his wife and children, living according to the rules of the church. For example, children should not be coddled or fussed over, and adults are not meant to get too attached to them. If a child dies, it is as God ordained and one should not grieve. Also, you cannot give sympathy or care to another member of the congregation who has sinned unless they have been forgiven by the congregation. Mary is a believer, yet finds the strictness difficult at times, especially in relation to children. She goes against her husband’s wishes to bring food to a young, unwed mother and her baby.

As the threat of Indian attacks grows greater, Mary’s husband and her brother-in-law go to Boston to ask the Governor for protection for their town. Sadly, the expected attack comes while they are gone. Mary witnesses the brutal murder of her sister, her nephews, and several neighbors before being kidnapped. The prisoners are then forced to march to the Indian camp. Mary carries her injured youngest daughter for days until her daughter dies from her wounds. When they arrive, Mary is separated from her older children and given to the warrior woman who is the leader of these Indians. It takes her a while to realize the horrible truth: she has now become a slave. Mary survives, though, and even begins to find some of the Indian ways appealing during her eleven weeks of captivity.

The real Mary Rowlandson was ransomed by the settlers and returned to her old life. She wrote a book about her experiences, which was one of the first accounts of captivity written by an American settler. Amy Belding Brown used that book as the basis for her story, but has gone beyond to imagine what Mary might have felt about her experience, and how she might have been changed by it. This was a wonderful novel that I would highly recommend to fans of historical fiction, or anyone who wants to learn a little more about American History.

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Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen

August 28, 2014

Murphy's LawMurphy’s Law is the first book in the Molly Murphy mystery series. Molly Murphy, the main character in this story, is a spunky 19th-century Irish heroine. Molly always ends up in trouble no matter where she goes. She is an outspoken, strong, independent lady. She commits a murder in self-defense, so she has to leave her cherished Ireland and her identity for the unknown shores of America.

In London she meets Kathleen O’Connor. Kathleen has two small children, and tickets for a ship to America where she plans to join her husband. But because she has tuberculosis and knows that she will not be allowed on the ship, she persuades the desperate Molly to take her children to America, using her ticket and her identity on the ship. Molly agrees to this plan since she wants to be in a new place and start a new life.

The ocean trip is not comfortable, and on top of that, she has to fend off unwelcome attentions of the mean troublemaker O’Malley, who seems to have known the real Kathleen. He threatens to expose Molly’s true identity in America.

After the landing at Ellis Island, O’Malley is found stabbed to death. Police detective Daniel Sullivan questions Molly about the stabbing since several people saw Molly slap O’Malley on the ship. Molly becomes the prime suspect along with a young man whom she has befriended. She decides to investigate the murder case of O’Malley to clear herself and her friend.

Finding her way through a vivid, Tammany Hall-era New York, Molly struggles to prove her innocence, facing one dangerous situation after another. She becomes a house help for a big politician to solve the mystery. She almost gets killed after finally discovering the true identity of the murderer.

This is a historical mystery, fast paced and richly detailed. Rhys Bowen has also written some other cozy mysteries series including Constable Evan Mysteries and Royal Spyness mysteries. Constable Evan Mysteries are very similar to Hamish Macbeth mysteries written by M. C. Beaton.

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Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

August 1, 2014

Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and SweetSet in World War II Seattle, author Jamie Ford explores the United States’ internment of Japanese Americans through this well-written historical fiction novel. Henry is a Chinese boy assigned to an all-white middle school on scholarship (meaning he gets to serve the kids in the cafeteria while they disparage his heritage). His parents are proud, his friends call him the white devil and his classmates taunt him. His only friends are Sheldon, an African American saxophone player, and Keiko, a new girl at his school who is Japanese. Henry is confused about who he should be at a time when identity is important to the American public and government. He is expected to be Chinese, an identity treasured by his father, a nationalist who sends money home to fight the Japanese attack on his homeland. His parents want him to speak English at home even though they do not understand the language. His parents force him to wear a button proclaiming “I am Chinese” as protection from anti-Japanese backlash. Like Henry, Keiko was born in the United States. When Keiko sees his button, she tells him “I am American”. Henry has truly found a friend in Keiko. They share a love of jazz and she shows him her beautiful sketches of Seattle life. He likes her so much, he rejects his father’s low opinion of Japanese and is horrified at the government mandated internment of Japanese Americans.

As an adult, Henry is mourning the loss of his wife after a long illness and stubbornly longs for a closer relationship with his son, Marty. When he hears that the belongings of Japanese Americans have been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel his mind immediately turns to memories of his friend Keiko. He knows that her family stored their more treasured belongings there meaning to retrieve them after the war. Henry lost track of Keiko and her family. Marty and his new fiance (a surprise to Henry, less so that she is not Chinese) help Henry search for a valuable jazz record in the pile of assorted and very dusty personal items. When they uncover Keiko’s sketchbook, Marty and his fiance sense that there is more to the story.

This is an enduring story of love and friendship despite prejudices, obstacles and the passing of time.

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

July 29, 2014

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard StreetMalka is a young child when her Russian Jewish family flees the pogroms to begin a new life in America. Like most Eastern Europeans who came in the early 20th Century, they find themselves crammed into the tenements of New York and working for pennies. Unlike other families, Malka’s family does not succeed in climbing their way out of poverty. Malka finds herself orphaned and crippled at age eight. She is taken in by an Italian family who makes Italian Ices and Ice Cream. Despite all this, Malka is determined to succeed on her own, even when she suffers setback after setback.

Mr. Dinallo, who adopts Malka, is kind but tough. He feels responsible for her since it was his ice cream cart that hit Malka and caused her disability. He takes her in, changes her name to Lilian, and teaches her about the ice cream trade. Lilian even adopts the Catholic religion to fit in. Yet she is never really considered to be one of the family. She sleeps in the store instead of in their apartment, and has to do the menial labor that none of his real children want to do. After Mr. Dinallo dies, Lilian believes her life will remain intertwined with the family forever, but fate conspires against her once more.

Lilian does find happiness when she falls in love with Albert Dunkle, a poor but handsome man. They begin an ice cream business of their own, starting with just one machine and a truck. Their rise to fortune mirrors the struggles of the United States; barely getting by during the depression in the 1930’s, being separated as Albert goes off to war, and prosperity finally coming after World War Two ends. By the early 1960’s, Malka Treynovsky has transformed into Lilian Dunkle the Ice Cream Queen, the fabulously rich and popular host of a children’s television show. Privately, though, she is still the caustic, tough girl from the tenements.

I loved the feisty voice of the narrator, and the fact that she was not perfect. She had a lot of bad things happen to her, but she fought back with vengeance, not sweet acceptance. This was a pleasant change from novels with a long suffering hero or heroine who triumphs by being perfect and righteous.

The Ice Cream Queen is Gilman’s first novel, but if you enjoy her wonderful sense of humor, try her memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.

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Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

July 24, 2014

Murder on Astor PlaceFans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series should also enjoy this mystery series, called the Gaslight Mysteries. Author Victoria Thompson places her historical mysteries in New York City in the early 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt had just become the chief of police.

The main character, Sarah Brandt, is a woman who was raised among the social elite. But Sarah is estranged from her wealthy family. As a young woman she had fallen in love with a doctor who was very far below her social status. She had a major break with her family when she married this doctor and became a midwife. Now a widow, she is still practicing the trade of midwife and it is while visiting a patient that she sees a young woman who looks very familiar, and who is found murdered the next day. It turns out that this woman is a member of a high-society family that Sarah used to know. Besides wondering why the victim was staying in a boardinghouse in a cheap neighborhood, Sarah also wants to see the killer brought to justice, and so she gets involved.

As with many mystery series of this type, the amateur detective has a partner of sorts who is a professional. In this case the professional is Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy. He is a man of his time and certainly does not appreciate Sarah’s efforts to help him. Only gradually does he come to value her assistance as she is able to talk to people in high society in ways that he cannot.

Thompson has certainly done her research on the place and time. For example, Malloy is saving up money for the bribe he will need to become a captain. Roosevelt has vowed to clean up this kind of corruption, but Malloy has no faith in that just yet. In fact, he considers giving up on this case early on because he can see that there will be no money in it for him. But his deep desire for justice keeps him searching for the killer.
If you’re looking for a new mystery series to try, the Gaslight Mystery series already has 16 titles. Begin at the beginning with this one.
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Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons

July 15, 2014

Charms for the Easy LifeI have been purposely avoiding reading any of Kaye Gibbons‘ novels because I had met her during my college years in Raleigh and was not sure I could read them without preconceived notions. I have finally arrived at a maturity level where I can do so with a totally open mind. I jumped in with both feet, and never looked back. This book fit my criteria for a good read as I could not put it down after the first chapter.

Let me begin my review by recommending that readers first become acquainted with the layout of our beautiful state, North Carolina. It also helps to be knowledgeable about Raleigh and the distinctions of the older, surrounding neighborhoods near downtown. The author seamlessly weaves these locations into the novel. She was born in Rocky Mount and went to college in the Triangle. It was so easy to hear the southern drawl flowing right out of the dialogue. The story cannot be fully enjoyed without at least a familiarity of the key landmarks and major cities of North Carolina. The imagery just cannot be maximized otherwise.

Published in 1993, Charms for the Easy Life is Gibbons’ fourth novel. Her commercial literary success began with the award winning Ellen Foster. There is no doubt that this novel was also meant to inspire her own three daughters. It continues her tradition of creating strong female main characters: Charlie Kate is the no-nonsense grandmother and matriarch; Sophia is her rebellious daughter; and Margaret is the perfectionist granddaughter. All three show extraordinary independent spirit as well as quick wit and intellect. The time period of the novel covers 1910-1945. It was a time where these characteristics were neither attractive nor acceptable for a female. Charlie Kate and Sophia are both mistreated, deserted, and eventually widowed by their husbands. They show the world that they can succeed without having a man to hold their hand. Understandably, Margaret becomes overly cautious around males. Will she be an old maid? Read Charms for the Easy Life and find out.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

June 25, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetIn his best known novels (such as Cloud Atlas), David Mitchell uses many literary techniques—multiple points of view and storylines, radically shifting locations and time periods. But in his fifth and most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell forgoes these to write a straight forward, third-person historical novel which takes place in Japan in the year 1799. At this time, the Japanese had almost entirely severed contacts with the West, having recently banished, persecuted, and executed Catholic missionaries and converts. The only Europeans allowed into Japan are the Dutch—and they are restricted to a small strip of land, Dejima, in the port city Hiroshima.

The book focuses on the experiences of young Jacob de Zoet, who has joined the Dutch East India Company to make the fortune that will allow him to return to Holland and marry his fiancé, Anna, a plan at odds with his scrupulous honesty as bookkeeper. While in Hiroshima, de Zoet encounters and falls in love with Orita Abigawa, a young Japanese woman learning (against both the folk superstitions and gender roles of her culture) the basics of Western medicine from Dr. Marinus, a Dutch physician and representative of 18th Century Enlightenment values. Because of her medical education, Abigawa is then forced into an horrific religious cult, led by the evil Enomoto.

Will Abigawa be rescued from the clutches of Enomoto and his henchmen? Will Jacob earn his fortune and return to Anna? Will he overcome Japan’s racial code and marry Abigawa?  Will Jacob and Dr. Marinus survive bombardment from an English warship? And what will happen to the escaped monkey named William Pitt?

These questions may suggest that Mitchell’s novel is a conventional suspense thriller. While suspenseful, however, the novel transcends its potboiler qualities through Mitchell’s many thematic concerns: corporate and capitalistic exploitation, the struggle between superstition and science, religious fundamentalism, and the struggle between Eastern and Western culture.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet can be read as a straight-forward adventure tale, a historical romance, and also an examination of the seeds of our own age as they began to germinate in one small place two centuries ago.

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