historical fiction

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Date read: 11.1.09
Read from: Borrowed from my brother
Reviewer: Emera

In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski receives news that an automobile accident has killed both of his parents. On top of that, he’s now penniless, as his parents secretly mortgaged their house and his father’s veterinary practice in order to pay for his Ivy-League education. After fleeing his final exams at Cornell in despair, he impulsively jumps a passing train, and discovers that it’s the circus train of The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. With no better prospects, he becomes the show’s veterinarian, and quickly learns that the circus’ glittering exterior is fueled by squalid, back-breaking labor and a brutal social hierarchy. Jacob finds his only kindred spirit in Marlena, the show’s beautiful horse trainer – who is, unfortunately, married to August, the show’s charming, amoral, and increasingly violent animal manager.

If you couldn’t tell from the description, this is a damn entertaining novel. Though Gruen’s writing lacks elegance and subtlety – I found myself rolling my eyes several times at particularly clunky descriptions, and was uncomfortable with her simplistic treatment of mental illness – it ably delivers drama and action. And ultimately, the most winning aspect is the historical immersion. In spite of the predictable plot and characters, I continued reading just to soak in more of the fascinating details of circus life. Many of the novel’s most memorable elements – from wayward, garden-raiding elephants to pickled hippopotamuses – are in fact based on historical anecdotes, as revealed in Gruen’s afterword. The framing device of a 93-year-old Jacob reliving his past while in an assisted living facility is also surprisingly moving and thoughtful.

Overall, Water for Elephants is enjoyable, if not excellent. If you like old-fashioned showbiz and sordid glitz, you’ll likely have a good time with it.

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Sara Gruen

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Date Read: 9.26.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The story follows Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor who calls upon the residents of the once glorious Hundreds Hall and begins to form a friendship with the remaining family and staff that reside there. His friendship to the family becomes a crux on which they rely, and soon he finds himself involved in ever stranger circumstances at Hundreds Hall.  The interactions of the story are characterized by mysterious fires, writings, and sounds with the underlying ever-increasing tension of Faraday’s relationship to the mother and daughter of the house.

Review

It took me a really long time to review this because I couldn’t form a concrete opinion. Basically, there was good and bad, but the good was oh so good and the bad was characterized by raging mediocrity. Every time the scales tipped in favor of one side, I’d remember something to the contrary and the dilemma would reassert itself.

The Good: Superb writing and storytelling. Of course, it is apparent from Waters‘ four previous novels that she knows how to write, and once again she demonstrates her ability to spin a tale out of not an incredible amount of material. I was reading along the first 100 pages, and I was still, somewhat inexplicably, waiting eagerly to find out what would transpire during Faraday’s fourth visit to the same dreary hall. There’s no rampant drama or lgbt overtones that characterize her previous novels, which I found quite refreshing, as if I were here for the sole purpose of enjoying raw word manipulation.

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Date read: 1.4.06
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Stevens is the quintessential English butler: dignified, humorless, and obsessively devoted to his work, he defines his life through his service to the late Lord Darlington. Convinced for decades that he has contributed to humanity by serving a great man, Stevens begins to reevaluate his experiences as he embarks on a country drive through postwar England. As he does, he finds that many of his memories – of his unthinking adulation of Lord Darlington, and of his difficult relationship with Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper – begin to take on a disturbing cast.

The Remains of the Day, like all Ishiguro novels, is intimately psychological and beautifully, beautifully written. Ishiguro always strikes a balance between wandering reminiscence and tight, artful construction. Reading one of his novels is like opening a tiny box to find an intricately meandering labyrinth inside. It takes patience to make your way through, but the delicate tension throughout presses you onward and lends a sense of direction and quiet urgency to the narrative. I haven’t read a novel of his in several years (this is an old review), but I have always had the sense that he paints with light and shadow: my memories of scene from his books are suffused with soft light and atmosphere, like dreams or out-of-focus photographs.

Ishiguro’s characters often seem to exist in voids of their own creation, set adrift in their memories until they are finally driven to seek out real contact and attempt resolution. For the first half of The Remains of the Day, you meet almost no other characters except through the lens of Stevens’ recollections, so that you half-believe his immaculate persona – until Miss Kenton appears on the scene as a disruptive force and exposes his pettiness and hypocrisy, both to the reader and himself. This is a novel about self-delusion, history and personal history, and the ways in which we can be reconciled with them – again, themes central to most of Ishiguro’s works.

The only disappointment to me in reading The Remains of the Day was actually the last two pages. I found the ending was a little too abrupt and pat, too suddenly transformative, almost out of character. Perhaps it will sit better with me with a re-read and a reintroduction to Stevens’ character, especially since a lot has changed in my understanding of people since my first read.

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Kazuo Ishiguro

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Date read: 1.22.06
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

Attilius, newly appointed aquarius (engineer) to the great aqueduct Augusta after the disappearance of the previous aquarius, is charged by the scholar and general Pliny to repair the disrupted aqueduct. With the water supplies of nine cities at risk, Attilius travels to the corrupt and vice-filled Pompeii to investigate the mysterious break, near Mount Vesuvius. As he travels, he finds that the damaged aqueduct and missing aquarius are only two of many strange omens – sulfur contamination, strange smoke, earthquakes, and inexplicable sounds like those of “walking giants,” all issuing from Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii was very well-written and full of fascinating historical detail, but it simply failed to hold my interest as a novel. I pin this on a lack of interest in the characters, who seemed like afterthoughts of the historical research: realistic in their various roles of Roman citizenry, but psychologically uninteresting. The heroine, for example, was a rather generic  “No, father, I shall not marry without love!” type. The atmosphere is satisfyingly gritty and ominous, however, and gathers strength as the book continues, culminating in a fantastically powerful description of the volcano’s final eruption.

All in all, Pompeii is a readable, carefully researched record of the last days of Pompeii, but lacks in character development and emotional involvement.

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Robert Harris

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Date Read: 12.26.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Margaret Prior becomes a “Lady Visitor” at the Millbank prison. There, she takes in the prison experience, from the food to the garb to the treatment of the prisoners and takes steps to befriend and be a source of comfort for many of the inmates. As her visits progress, she finds herself drawn to one girl in particular, a spirit medium Selina Dawes, convicted of spiritualistic fraud and assault. Soon, between her own declining health and the nature of her friendship with Selina, Margaret finds herself hopelessly committed to the Millbank prison and tangled up with mysterious spirits.

Review

Well, I don’t really know how to approach this review. I could either review it superficially and not give away the story, or try to convey everything I want to and ruin everything by implication. I’ll… just… charge ahead as best I can and see where it takes me.

Overall Affinity was a much easier read than either Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith because it was so linear and set in one place– the prison and Margaret’s house were the only settings and the prison was the only plot. As a result, the circumstances definitely called for a slow, steadily snowballing story.

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Date Read: 7.28.07
Book From: Borders Piracy
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Lily is born to a poor village family, but a prominent matchmaker notices Lily at a young age and informs her that her physical beauty may promise a prosperous marriage. To help the process, Lily is paired with a laotong (Chinese companion for life), Snow Flower, to increase her credibility and status. For their entire lives, Snow Flower and Lily share a deep friendship and endure their hardships and married life together.

Review

Back when I first reviewed this book, I wrote down “Good… awesome… but not mindblowing”. And it was exactly that. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is such an excellent book– great character development, writing, plot, historical references– but it is never one that I immediately think to recommend to people. It’s definitely a book that misses the wow factor, and as engaging as it is, fails to completely immerse the reader in the world. I found myself reacting very strongly to events in the book, but not coming away feeling attached.

Overall, many elements of the plot are a bit of a reach in that I think it was extremely unlikely that all of these fortunes would fall upon a common Chinese village girl. In this way, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha, another book that clearly knows its history and society’s makeup but reaches a bit too far to make an interesting and compelling story. However, if you focus on just the laotong relationship instead of how it came to be, it really is quite beautiful. Their dialogues really impress upon the reader the objectification, cruelty, and lack of purpose experienced by Chinese women.

It’s certainly a book to read if you are interested in historical chinese traditions. In particular, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan contained one of the most vivid accounts of footbinding I had ever read. See devotes an entire chapter to Lily’s hardships during her footbinding experience, underlining the layers of tensions between Lily and her family that accumulate because of this process. It is extremely instructive in the nature of the relationship between parent and child in older chinese cultures, as well as the female to society.

If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you will enjoy Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but prepare yourself for a different emotional journey.

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Lisa See

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The time has come for another list! As you will all soon come to realize, Emera and Kakaner have a dire weaknesses for creating and maintaining lists. We are also both fanatic collectors and readers of YA books, even in our post-teenage years

The list is reproduced below, but its permanent home is on our Lists page here:

The Black Letters Top 10 YA Books

In alphabetical order by author:

  • Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
  • Ella Enchanted (1997) by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Justin Norton
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O’Brien
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
  • Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson
  • The Perilous Gard (1971) by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare
  • Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli
  • Dealing with Dragons (1990) by Patricia Wrede

Well, we started with about 20 choices and it was slightly tricky narrowing it down to 10. The genres range from fantasy to urban fiction to historical fiction to animal fiction, which we believe is a pretty healthy smattering of YA genres. If anyone hasn’t read any of these, well, he or she should. All these reads would probably take about an hour, two hours tops, and promise to be most rewarding.

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Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

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Sophie Gee

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Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

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Karen Cushman

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