Posts tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

Tiny House People – “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

If you are a woman who grew up in the 70s or 80s the chances are pretty high that at Unknown-1.jpegsome point you read “The Little House on the Prairie” books.   So the fact that Miller has written a book revisiting the story from the viewpoint of Laura’s Ma (Caroline) is pretty exciting for those of us who are LHOP fans.  And the book really didn’t disappoint.  It is a study of pioneer life as a mother, wife, and woman just like the LHOP books were a study of pioneer life of a young girl as she goes through all the stages of childhood to adulthood.

More specifically, this book follows the life of the Ingalls family as they make the trek in a covered wagon from Minnesota to Kansas.  To further complicate life, Caroline finds out she is pregnant right before they begin their journey – so, if life in a wagon sounds amazingly comfortable then just imagine it pregnant with two smalls kids in tow.

Miller’s strengths are in her thorough research of the topic and her detailed descriptions.  Her insight into the life of a pioneer family from the stitching of the cover for a wagon to the sweetening of bread over a fire with molasses to how to halt a prairie fire is certainly  insightful and in a lot of parts is interesting.  Unfortunately, where Miller tends to lose momentum, is in the story itself and connection to the narrator.  Caroline seems cold and removed even with the soft edges Miller tries to give her and the day-to-day detailed tasks start to feel as tedious as they likely actually were.  I was reminded as they started building their one room house on the Kansas prairie that there are a lot of shows based on this premise of tiny house living.  And as I suspected, this insight into tiny house living with two small children is nowhere in my life plans.

There is some momentum towards the end of the book, but as all LHOP fans know (SPOILER HERE), the Ingalls family winds up moving back to Minnesota after all of that  work setting up a homestead in Kansas which just seems to deflate the story like a balloon.  Ending the novel on that note left me feeling disappointed and like I had also made a lot of cornbread with molasses for nothing.  In truth, I wish I liked molasses more than I do.

 

 

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January 3, 2018 at 7:38 pm Leave a comment

Expectation is the mother of something – My year end book round-up thing

IMG_5512.jpgI read an unusually large amount of books this year (72 to be exact).  The only way I can really account for this large number is an entire Spring, Summer and Autumn of evenings on our new porch.  The space is peaceful – even with my children and dog tumbling through it.  I found that even when I have worked a long day I just needed reading time in that space. So I guess what I am saying is that I am the shallow person that needs pretty spaces while I read and if that happens then 72 books are totally within my grasp.  IMG_5515.jpg

In all of those piles of books I read this year there were great finds, disappointments and just plain ridiculousness that made me wonder how the author landed with any kind of book deal let alone was acclaimed by some list or carried some kind award winning stamp of approval.  Here is my list.

Favorite Books that made me think: 

  1.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and Birth of the FBI by David Grann – This book covers the history of the Osage tribe as well as their systematic murders by the white people in their community wanting their wealth.  It is a story that is shocking in and of itself, the fact that it is true is devastating.  This book made me realize how very little I know about Native American history even just in the last one hundred years but also how few books there are that cover that period of history.
  2. The Round House by Louise Edrich – I have not read anything by Edrich before and this book was beautiful, sad and compelling.  Edrich chronicles Native American life but perhaps most importantly reservation life.  The story is told through the eyes of a boy, Joe, who learns that his mother has been savagely attacked and raped.  After the crime, Joe watches his parents try to return to some normalcy while failing miserably.  Between the tribal justice system (which includes Joe’s father) and the white justice system (which does not seem to care), Joe decides that the only way he can find out who attacked his mother is by investigating the crime himself with his friends.   There are a lot of books about boys trying to solve something that has changed their lives but this book is something more.  It is a deep look at Native American culture, white culture has hindered any hope of a future and how even in the most vulnerable moments for our children parents will fail them.
  3. We Crossed the Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Perlman – Before we made any decisions about how to handle refugees from Syria we all should have read this book.  It is akin to where we tell a story about someone who sounds like you living through war and having to leave everything but then say but they are actually Syrian.  It is lawyers, scholars, mothers, students, it is you and I living through something harrowing and expecting the world to care.  But we didn’t.
  4. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – To me this was the best book I read this year. It is a three hundred year history of a family in Ghana that at one point splinters into tribal royalty and into slavery.  It is brilliantly written and, even though the characters change frequently, there is a connection from generation to generation that keeps the reader invested.  I absolutely loved it.

Favorite Suspense Books: 

  1.     The Dry by Jane Harper – I was hesitant to read this one because of all of the critical acclaim but Harper earned it. This is the story of Aaron Faulk coming home to a painful past in his Australian home town while wrestling with the appearance that his childhood friend has murdered his family and killed himself.
  2. The Good Daughter by Karen Slaughter – If you like suspense books you just should read Slaughter. Her books are just well done all the way around.
  3. The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg – I am new to Lackberg but her novels set in Fjallbacka, Sweden have that wonderful blend of likable characters that find themselves dealing with a murder in their small town and suspense. These character driven mystery novels have become my favorite blend in this genre.

Books that me wonder why they were considered so amazing:

  1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – This book was everywhere. Acclaimed, talked about, chased after.  But I really didn’t like it, didn’t find it enlightening and was really frustrated by it.  I sometimes wonder if books about such a tough topic that receive critical acclaim make it hard for readers to just be honest about how it resonated with them, instead of just nodding and saying “yes, so deep and insightful.”  Let’s just admit here and now that even the great Toni Morrison has a miss now and then and it is okay to not love everything that examines our nation’s painful past and current race relations. Just because it attempts to create a space for discourse does not render it quality or literature.
  2. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger – This book made some good points but completely lost me on some of the political points as well as completely frustrating me when tribe is used as an excuse to lose our sense of what makes a community healthy and meaningful.  We have to be smarter and better than that.
  3. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman – I really hate to add this to the list but this book was disappointing for me.  It is meant to be prequel to Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” and that had such appeal and Reese Witherspoon loved it so there’s that. I felt a bit like these were a lot of short stories Hoffman has written that she then wove together to create a bigger story and then it became the prequel so it was marketable.

Nice Surprises that are wonderful reads:

  1. My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith – it is sunny and set in a gorgeous place, read it on a cold day when you are wishing to travel.
  2. Bruno Chief of Police by Martin Walker – it is a mystery but also such a great focus on Southern French culture and food that it was just too lovely to not enjoy. Read it when you have a good bottle of wine and cheese on hand.
  3. The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne – This is her first book and it was a compelling story of what life would be if you were born out of your mother’s captivity but still loved your father who had held her captive.  There is a level of writing here that really makes me curious to see what Dionne writes next. Read it when you want a good suspense novel with some excellent writing.
  4. Who Thought this was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco – written by President Obama’s deputy chief of staff this book has so many funny moments but is also such a great reminder of how hard being a woman in politics is and makes you hope that the days of this type of integrity are not a thing of the past. Read it when politics are depressing you and you have a good drink in hand so you can really forget about our current woes.

Never ever pick up:   No matter who says otherwise I would beg you not to read books by Victora Aveyard (Red Queen series), B.A. Paris (I know they sound good in the descriptions but trust me), Shari Lapena (maybe the first one she wrote but otherwise no), or maybe anything else Paula Hawkins writes.

And so ends 2017. May your 2018 be filled with joy, happiness and lovely places to curl up with a good book.

 

 

December 30, 2017 at 6:34 pm Leave a comment

The End of the Affair and the beginning of another – “Before We were Yours” and “Column of Fire”

It is inevitable. You have a writer you love and you look forward to their new works in that nerdy breathy way we crazy readers do. And then the new book falls a bit flat and you start to reassess your reader-to-writer relationship.  Was it really love? Was I crazy? Should we have broken up sooner?

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I am afraid this is where I am with Ken Follett’s newest book “A Column of Fire.” Now don’t get me wrong, a writer who can spend 800 pages writing about the construction of a cathedral and make it dramatic and engaging is brilliant. So, Follett will always have my love for that.  But this third installment in the Kingsbridge series just didn’t hold me in the same way.  Even setting the book during the rein of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth the First didn’t keep me interested.  Which is impressive because the Tudors hold my interest in the way that many folks love the Real Housewives shows – it is a rich, bloody, back-stabbing mess.  I have thought long and hard about what this book was missing and for me I think it was character connection.  It was clear who the protagonists were but I wasn’t wildly rooting for them.  This left their destinies a bit uninteresting for me.  I guess for me Ned Willard can’t hold a candle to Jack and perhaps therein lies the rub.  If you have traveled this far with Kingsbridge this book is still worth the read but I just don’t think it holds up quite as well as the other two.

This leads me to my new love affair with Lisa Wingate the author of “Before We were Yours.” This is another historical fiction book set on the Mississippi River in the late 1930s.   It focuses on the illegal kidnapping of hundreds of children by Georgia Tann who ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage in Memphis.  Wingate has used fictional children and families to illustrate the destruction that Georgia Tann wrought on low income families and single mothers for more than 20 years. In a time when adoption records were sealed and with powerful judges, doctors, and police officers receiving kickbacks and bribes from Tann, families who lost their children to the orphanage were powerless to recover them.  While many of these children were adopted by families of better financial means this did not keep them safe from abuse, neglect and

Unknown-2.jpegin some cases death.   Perhaps some of the most famous cases of such abusive adoptions were those of movie stars June Allyson and  Joan Crawford (Mommy dearest anyone?) who both adopted children from Tann.

Wingate’s story is beautifully woven regardless of the harrowing historical backdrop.  She uses the strong unbreakable ties of siblings and the importance of  the need to feel rooted in who we truly are to carry the characters through decades of loss, change and then renewal.  Her ability to set the stage for the reader with her descriptions and a strong sense of place seemed to imply that the places we surround ourselves with are just as important as the people that surround us.  Our sense of place (the water we played in as children, the porch we sat on, the tree we climbed, the flowers we always smelled in the Spring) is a part of who we are just as much as family – and recovering both can be enormously healing.

While I did struggle a bit with part of the modern day story line that is interwoven with the past, Wingate’s writing was strong enough to pull it off.  And strong enough to make me wonder what else has this Wingate written and why is our relationship just starting?

I guess the long and short of it is, I am quite fickle in my author love affairs and I am always happy to be swept off my feet by a new author.   Now I am back with a newish-old love, Celeste Ng, and so far her second book is living up to all the hype.

November 10, 2017 at 2:47 pm 4 comments

Crazy Lady Brains are Always Trouble – “The Address” by Fiona Davis

I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  It was an interesting look at the history (through fiction) of the famous New York city Dakota building – which is well known for being the place where John Lennon was shot, where famous people like 500px-Dakota_Building.JPGLauren Bacall lived and where parts of “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed.

This book, like many as of late, cuts back and forth chapter by chapter between the presentish* (1980)  and the past.  In 1884, Sara Smythe travels from Ireland to run the staff at the newly built  Dakota.  So in the pieces of the past, Sara  finds herself struggling with class, understanding how the nouveau rich work, while also trying to manage her feelings for the married architect of the Dakota, Theodore Camden.

A century later, Bailey finds herself freshly out of rehab after too many nights living like a scene out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.  She is out of a work interior designer, homeless and unsure if her sobriety will stick.  Her last hope is her wealthy cousin Melinda, who has inherited an apartment in the Dakota from her grandfather Theodore Camden (see the connection).  Melinda is quite excited to hire Bailey to oversee the modernizing of her apartment  – though Melinda’s vision has all of the amazing decor touches that so many of us are happy were left in the 80s (think pink bathrooms sinks and decorative bamboo).   As Bailey reluctantly helps Melinda achieve her decorating vision, Bailey begins to learn more through boxes and archives about Theodore Camden and the  woman who eventually was accused of murdering him, *insert dramatic music here* Sara Smythe .
The twists and turns are somewhat predictable but not painfully so.  There is a lot here about class and what society did with women who did not follow the rules.  Davis did her homework here and incorporates in her story the cutting-edge journalism that really helped reform the New York asylums and treatment of women in the 1880s.  She makes it clear that if a woman was too smart for her own good she would be punished severely and for the right amount of money you could make her disappear.

Davis also touches on how America really was meant to be a place where you weren’t born into society but, instead, you actually could climb the societal ladder – but then it became a place that was turning itself inside out to create the very nobility it had wanted to leave behind.   She touches on some tender parts of who we are as a country and where this seems to have led us.

This is not a deep book, but it is interesting with enough historical pieces to make it thoughtful and enough compelling story to make it fun.   It also makes me eternally grateful that asylums for sassy women are a thing of the past because sometimes I do use my lady brain too much.

 

*As an aside, I know presentish is not a word but shouldn’t it be?

September 28, 2017 at 8:33 pm Leave a comment

When You Make Assumptions…- “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

This book, like approximately 60% of any book being published right now, is set during World War II.   While I do understand that WWII as a device is extremely compelling for writers I  wonder when this trend will begin to tamper off.  Honestly, it is getting a little wearisome.  And this was my mind-set when I started “Lilac Girls” – oh look another WWII book.  Which is too bad because this book is well researched, well written and two of the characters are based on real people.  Unfortunately, at the time I read this book I did not know it was based on real people. So please forgive my assumptions which will be included in this review for your amusement.

25893693.jpgThe novel covers the life of three woman during WWII, dedicating each Chapter to one of the woman and the story flits back and forth.  There is Caroline, a former broadway actress and blue-blooded New Englander, who lives in New York City and volunteers her time for the French Consulate helping French orphans.  Across the ocean, Kasia Kuzmerick is living in Poland and is one-quarter Jewish when the Nazis invade her town.    Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor looking for employment and a way to be independent and financially secure.

The three lives come together in both harrowing and beautiful ways.  Kasia becomes a part of the Polish resistance, only to eventually be taken to Ravensbrück when captured by the SS.  Herta finds a position at a wonderful spa-like resort (also Ravensbrück) doing medical experiments on political prisoners, including Kasia which she seems to excuse by the mind-set that are meant to be executed anyway.  And Caroline falls in love with a married man, prunes lilacs and after the war raises money for the women who suffered from the experiments of Dr. Herta Oberheuser.

As apparent by my description, as I read the book, I found Caroline’s story to be the least interesting and the most drawn out. Again, I had no idea this was based on a real life, so I was a bit confused as to why this character’s story mattered.  Now that I am not as ignorant as I was before realize that Kelly had some limitations here with Caroline.  Her real story does indeed have a lot of parts to it, as most lives do, and I admire Kelly for trying to write so much about Caroline.  She was quite the hero in multiple ways through-out the war but particularly in helping the women who had cruelly suffered both medically and psychologically from the camps. So I am that jerk who feels like her story lags a bit (I really am sorry about that).

I do think one of the short-comings of the book is Herta’s story.  At the beginning, Kelly seems committed to examining Herta’s choices and explaining how she ended up becoming who she was and doing what she did.   But in the middle of the book, Herta’s voice seems to end. I am unclear if Kelly wrote chapters here that were removed or if she just felt like she couldn’t push that envelope further.  Either way, it seems that it would have been interesting to follow Herta through her arrest and her time in prison to her release and reentry into society.  If the book starts with these three stories then it seems disjointed that it somehow become two stories instead.

To Kelly’s credit, this first book is quite a feat.   I will also admit I came to this book with assumptions and a bit of an attitude.  Needless to say, Kelly as a writer has my attention and I look forward to her next book.

But seriously writers, there really are other wars to write about. I promise…

 

October 12, 2016 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

The Courage to Plant your Feet – “Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League” by Jonathan Odell

This author is just good.  He is a great storyteller and his writing is well suited for the story.  But his writing goes deeper than that – you can see in his writing that this author has a story all his own.  I really liked his book “The Healing” and was happy to come across this book at my favorite local book store The Book Loft (little plug for the independent bookstore).

516bMIYk55L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t be fooled by the summary, this is a story you think you have read before, but it just isn’t.  Is the late 1940s and Hazel is a poor, white trash Southerner.  She is plain and stooped and doomed to be a farmer’s wife.  But convinced she is destined for more, Hazel teaches herself how to stand up straight, how to apply make-up, how to do her hair just so.  And so she becomes the desirable woman that Floyd is looking for when he walks into local Dairy Barn Diner.  Floyd sweeps Hazel off her feet.  They marry and move to Delta, Mississippi where, through the power of positive thinking, he is going to make all of their dreams come true.  By the 1950s, Hazel has two children, a house bigger than she ever dreamed, and a hole inside of her that she just can’t seem to fill.  And so, she drives around town and all over the countryside with her two boys in the back and a flask of whiskey in her lap.

By the time, Vida is hired as the housekeeper, Hazel has lost one son to an unfortunate jump off the porch and has been hospitalized multiple times for nervous breakdowns.  And while Hazel’s story is a sad one, it pales in comparison to Vida’s, which is not unlike the story of many Southern black women growing up in the 1940s and 50s.  She is a woman who was raped by the white sheriff, lost her son (who looked too much like the sheriff), and then lost her home.  Because of this, Vida has replaced her sense of self and her security (what little there was) with a quiet but deep-seeded rage.  It is an interesting parallel. While one woman, Hazel, is trying to fill a void that is slowing killing her, the other is trying to find an outlet for her rage that she is willing to let destroy her as long as she gets revenge.

The way Vida and Hazel’s lives intersect is not an unusual story, black housekeeper working for a sad rich, white lady, but their need for each other is what makes the story more interesting than others of its ilk.   The white woman doesn’t save the black woman here.  Or really vice versa. But they do help each other accomplish what they need to in order to fill those holes in themselves that were slowly and methodically destroying them.  That combination makes the story powerful and worthy of telling.

As in “The Healing,” Odell spends a lot of time with his female characters.  And, not even just for a male writer, he excels at it.  I recently heard Gillian Flyn (author of “Gone Girl”) speak and she said that sometimes when writing from the female prospective, male authors really push it. And then you are stuck with some ridiculous line like “and then I got my period” so you can feel like the male author really knows women.  But Odell does not need to rely on the triteness of this kind of writing, because quite frankly he is skilled – and that, perhaps sadly, is refreshing.

The topic is a tough one. Let’s be honest here, how much whining can a rich white woman do – particularly in the presence of such extreme racism in the 1950s South?  But somehow, because of the way Hazel pulls out of her slump to help the black women in her community, the reader can feel okay about Hazel’s hardships.  And as always, Odell’s afterward is key to the story.  We haven’t heard enough about women in the Civil Rights movement. Great numbers of women boycotted buses, suffered beatings and rapes and police dogs.  They linked arms and walked to demeaning jobs in white households, sometimes just to spy on their employers to forward the equality movement.  They have stories and those stories are important.  As Odell so insightfully points out, Mrs. Parks, on the day that she refused to move on that bus, “showed a million women where to plant their feet.”   And they did, time and time again.  I can only hope, when the time comes, we all have the courage to do the same.

As for Jonathan Odell, I just hope he keeps writing.

November 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

Why is a Raven like a writing desk* – “Mrs. Poe” by Lynn Cullen

One of our favorite American writers gone wrong is Edgar Allan Poe.  His stories are haunting but maybe equally as
interesting is his bizarre marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and his death which is surrounded by urban legends of drunkenness, being found homeless in the street, etc.  “Mrs. Poe” is Cullen’s historical fiction novel about Poe’s affair with the little known poet Frances Osgood.  It all should be the formula for a pretty intriguing book.  But somehow Cullen is deftly able to skirt the intrigue and make this book a mundane and strangely redundant story.

mrs-poeIn 1845, Poe had become quite popular with his publishing of “The Raven.”  His wife, Virginia, was suffering from declining health as she and Poe made the rounds of the literary circles in New York City.  Like the Poes, Frances Osgood spent many evenings socializing in parlors with Whitman, Atwood and a whole other host of literary giants when she finally met Poe.  Frances and Poe seemed to have an immediate connection.  While Frances is married, her husband is a well-known philandering artist. She is lonely and destitute, hoping to publish some of her work.    She and Poe form a fast friendship which quickly grows into more.

There are clandestine meetings where gloves are left behind, whispers in crowded rooms, jealous spouses, gossiping neighbors.  And then there are more clandestine meetings, more rumors, love poems exchanged, societal gossip, some weird behavior by Poe’s wife, etc.  If you read the first one hundred pages of this book, you really can either read those pages again or read the second 200 pages because it is really all the same.  I hope I don’t ruin anything by sharing that they all do die at some point, so the cycle does end…eventually.

I am not trying to diminish  the research and work Cullen must have put into this book, but truly it is baffling how she has made her characters so predictably repetitive and mundane.  I have a young adolescent crush on Poe. He was one of the first writers I read that really scared me.  And the man himself has always been a bit of a puzzle.   But this book is just more of a curiosity then an insight into who Poe was.  I guess sometimes the riddle of the writer is best left alone.

*The unanswered riddle from “Alice in Wonderland”

October 21, 2015 at 12:44 pm 2 comments

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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