Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Homegoing

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog bookshop, and I was very keen to read it. This is the third book I read on my five weeks of American literature, and I read it while I was travelling through California and managed to finish it just on my last day in San Francisco – a city that features in one of the chapters. I took this photo while I was staying in a friend’s apartment in one of the beautiful old San Francisco buildings.

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“Homegoing” is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi. The story is a two-pronged family saga on either side of the ugly history of slavery in what now is Ghana. Each chapter is dedicated to a member of the respective families of Effia, a Fante woman who is married to an English governor and whose descendants remain in Ghana, and Esi, an Asante teenager who is captured and sold as a slave to the Americas. Joined both by their past and their future, Effia and Esi’s story unfolds over successive generations.

This novel is a really interesting exploration of the role of African nations and state warfare in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular during the 1700s, a role that I really did not know about at all. Gyasi uses her novel to contrast the lasting impacts of slavery against the lasting impacts of European colonisation in Ghana: two very different sides of the same coin. While Effia’s descendants grapple with their role in perpetuating slavery and later in overcoming British rule, Esi’s descendants must survive slavery and later segregation and institutionalised racism.

Gyasi is a very tactile writer and this book has a strong focus on the senses and the body. The African chapters in particular give a very keen sense of place, time and people. This is part of the reason why I felt that the African chapters are much stronger than the American chapters. I also felt that despite some of them living in extreme poverty, Effia’s descendants seem to have rather more self-determination than their American counterparts and I felt like their personalities were far more nuanced and individualised. In contrast, Esi’s family line seem a little more like caricatures and, although character development within a single chapter is understandably a difficult feat, they seem much more rigid. I think if you were after a more engrossing family saga just about race in America and moving through slavery to segregation to today, I would probably recommend “Cane River” over this one.

However, the historical importance of the story as a whole and the contrast between the two family lines does work quite well. Although the changing chapters can be a bit jarring at times, it is nevertheless a fascinating story and Gyasi is a strong enough writer to link all the complex threads together by the end.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

My Cousin Rachel

This book and I didn’t get off to a great start. It’s just recently been made into a film, and I loved “Rebecca” so much I thought I simply had to get a copy. First of all, I have a beautiful set of Daphne du Maurier novels – but it doesn’t include this one. So I tried to pick up a copy from some secondhand bookstores, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally, on my lunch break, I found a copy in Dymocks in Canberra City that didn’t have photos from the new film adaptation over it. However, when I got back to the office I realised that the cover had damage to the bottom! My colleague very kindly went back to swap it for me, but they didn’t have any more copies in store. Bummer! So I guess I’m stuck with this one, but I did get a couple of goodies including an ARC and a notebook to make up for it.

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“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier is a historical novel set in Cornwell, UK during the Victorian era. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young man orphaned as a toddler who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip grows up to be just like his cousin, and loves their bachelor lifestyle on Ambrose’s idyllic country estate. However when Ambrose’s health begins to suffer in the English winters, he leaves Philip for months every year to visit warmer climates. It is on his third such trip that he meets Philip’s distant cousin Rachel. Philip is increasingly disturbed by the letters from Ambrose about his swift marriage to Rachel and his rapidly declining health. He decides to visit Italy himself to check on Ambrose and find out about this mysterious cousin Rachel.

This is a compelling novel that is best read in the winter. Du Maurier is queen of setting an ominous tone, morally ambiguous characters and creating women dwarfed only by their reputations. Philip is a complex character who is both oblivious and obstinate, and he makes for an interesting narrator. I don’t want to give too much away, but while I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did “Rebecca”, this is still an engaging read. Du Maurier maintains tension throughout the entire book, but I felt like the ending was just a bit too predictable.

Not quite “Rebecca”, but not bad. I’m very interested to see what they made of the movie.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

The Beat on Ruby’s Street

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

The Beat on Ruby's Street

“The Beat on Ruby’s Street” by Jenna Zark is a historical young adult novel about Ruby, an eleven year old girl growing up among the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1958. Living a carefree existence with artist Nell-mom, musician Gary Daddy-o and brother Ray,  everything comes crashing down when “the Man”, in the form of a social worker, comes looking for her. Although she tries to comfort herself with her own words and poetry, when she misses out on seeing Jack Kerouac, Ruby worries that her golden birthday coming up in just a couple of days isn’t going to be so golden.

This is a great little story that is really easy to read. In fact, after being invited to come watch my friend play jazz this afternoon, I thought what better place to spend my afternoon reading a book about the bohemian lifestyle than at a quirky live music venue. Ruby is a strong character with the perfect adolescent mix of overconfidence and uncertainty. Although we see the Beatnik scene through her eyes, this book raises some interesting questions about the children who grew up there and the tension between artistic self-interest and acceptable standards of care. Ruby has far more freedom that many children do today, but she also has a lot of uncertainty about meals, schooling and, sometimes, even the location of her parents. The only thing that I was a little disappointed in was the abrupt ending. However, this book does have a bit of a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” feel about it and I think is ultimately meant to just be a glimpse into Ruby’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. A lovely and nuanced little snapshot into a vibrant time in history.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I remember first hearing about this story a long time ago watching the Simpsons. I then came across the film, and I remember watching it and thinking, huh. This seems like perhaps it’s a lesbian romance. Turns out I was on the money, so I decided to actually go and read the book. I’m not quite sure where I got my copy of this book from. Somehow it just manifested itself on my bookshelf. There’s no pricetag on it so maybe it was a donation? Either way, it turned out that my bestie and I were reading the same book at the same time, so we thought we’d make it an extravaganza and watch the film together as well.

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“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is a novel by Fannie Flagg that spans from the 1920s to the 1980s in Alabama, USA. Jumping back and forth through time, and told through little vignettes and articles, the novel is a sweeping story of a small town and the people in it through the Depression and World War II. In the 1980s is Evelyn, a woman who is losing her identity, her sense of purpose and even potentially her marriage now her children have moved out of home. When she meets the reminiscing Mrs Threadgoode at the same retirement home as her mother-in-law, Evelyn is revitalised by her stories. In particular is the story of incorrigible tomboy Idgie, how she came to meet the beautiful and kind Ruth and the life they built together at a little cafe.

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Flagg is a natural storyteller and this is the perfect book to pick up and read a couple of the short chapters at a time, then come back to again later. It’s a great balance of diverse and interesting characters against charming little stories. Reading this book, you can’t ignore that it was published in 1987. In some ways it absolutely broke ground, especially with respect to disability, women’s rights, homelessness and legitimising LGBTIQ relationships. I loved the character of Stump and how his community and his family rallied around him to help him thrive after his accident. I loved how accepting everyone was of Idgie’s gender identity and of her relationship with Ruth. I loved how much humanity Flagg injects into this novel, especially using the character of Smokey to explore homelessness, alcoholism and a transient lifestyle. In other ways this book has aged a bit, especially regarding the racial commentary. At time it’s hard to separate Mrs Threadgoode’s well-meaning yet archaic comments about African American people, and Flagg’s own views.

I can’t talk about this book without mentioning my favourite part. If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about books with recipes in the back. This book has SO many recipes in the back. Food is such an important part of the story, both in the present and in the past, and really give the book a sense of place. Having the opportunity to cook some of those recipes, including the titular fried green tomatoes which my bestie nailed, really added to the whole experience.

A fun, lighthearted story with some more serious aspects at time, I enjoyed the book a lot and enjoyed cooking the recipes even more.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Cookbooks, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.

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“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.

This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.

I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.

I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Signed Books

In Farleigh Field

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.

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“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has hear from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.

This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.

This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.

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Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior

After talking about a number of different issues together, a friend of mine lent me this book. I had never heard of it before (and I’ll go into that further in a minute) and apart from reading “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” last year, I haven’t had much exposure to Australian Aboriginal historical fiction. However, I have noticed that the role of Aboriginal people in early Australian historical fiction is often either glossed over or largely absent. The book has sat on my shelf for the better part of a year and finally I got around to reading it.

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“Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” is a historical fiction novel by Aboriginal academic, engineer and writer Eric Willmot and originally published in the 1980s. The story is set in the late 1700s around the Sydney area shortly after the arrival of the first British convicts and settlers. When a young Awabakal man called Kiraban first sees white people arrive in his homeland by ship (in the Newcastle area), he decides to adventure with them south to Sydney to gain experience and status among his people. When he arrives, he befriends and learns the languages of both the white settlers and people from the Eora nation and observes the interplay between these two peoples. Although Eora elder Bennelong advocates cooperation with the British, Kiraban comes to hear stories of mysterious Bidjigal man Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy has stopped trading kangaroo meat with the British as he once did and has instead begun to sabotage the Governor’s attempts to expand Sydney and turn Eora land into farmland. Without any way to get home to his people, and with relations deteriorating between the British and the Eora, Kiraban must decide which side to join.

This is an incredibly important book. In his short background at the beginning of the novel, Willmot writes:

This was indeed a conspiracy of silence. The same that was applied to Pemulwuy’s resistance. It was apparently not in the interests of a crookedly intent or racist establishment to promote such parts of the Australian story. If this is true, then these people have stolen from generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-Australians a heritage as important, as tragic and as heroic as that of any other nation on earth.

When I was in school, we learned about Captain Cook and the First Fleet. We learned about Banjo Patterson, the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade, Federation and the White Australia Policy. What we didn’t learn was about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. Even though the idea that the continent of Australia as terra nullius has since been proven false, there is a real absence of Aboriginal history within the national consciousness. I believe that this book would have been a much more valuable book to study in school than some of the other Australian texts we studied. If Australians were to understand that there were valiant warriors among the Aboriginal people who first encountered and, for years, effectively resisted settlement, perhaps there would be more mutual respect today.

This was also a really interesting book for a number of other reasons. I really liked Willmot’s treatment of women in this book. Narawe is a fascinating character who shows ferocity as a fighter on a number of occasions. Willmot also compares the role of women both among the different tribal groups of the Eora as well as between Aboriginal people and the British. Willmot also explores the ethics of both the British approach to settlement and the resistance of Pemulwuy, highlighting the many grey areas and suffering on both sides. I think probably the thing that I found most difficult about this book is that although it was only 300 pages long, it did take me a while to get through it. It is quite heavy on military and tactical writing, something that I have never been particularly interested in.

Nevertheless, Willmot is a bright and considered writer who has filled an important historical gap with an alternative narrative of the people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs who would like a more nuanced retelling of early British colonialism and the impacts on Aboriginal Australia.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction