Category Archives: Historical Fiction

With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story

HarperCollins the publisher was running a bit of a Christmas special and had this book available to read for free. In fact, I think it still is available for free. It has been a while since I read a Jackie French book, and while I whipped through it before Christmas, my intentions on having this review ready for Christmas were sadly not fulfilled. So, here it is, slightly late: my review.

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“With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story” is a short story by Jackie French set shortly after the first novel in her “Miss Lily” series called “Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies”, about the contribution of society ladies to World War I. This short story takes place in France during winter. A hospital is running low on supplies, patients are dying of influenza, and head nurse Sophie is worried that she won’t be able to have the ceasefire Christmas she was hoping for. However, between the dying old woman who won’t stop furiously knitting, the handsome captain and the help from Miss Lily, somehow Christmas makes it after all.

This is a very short but touching story that manages to weave a bit of history, feminism, family, friendship and even a dash of romance altogether. I really enjoyed reading it on my drive down to my own family Christmas and I am a bit intrigued about the rest of the series.

I think I’ll finish the review here because it’s such a short story, I’m at risk of writing a longer review than story. Sorry I didn’t get this up in time for Christmas!

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.

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“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.

As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.

Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.

This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.

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

Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.

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“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.

This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.

In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land.  Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.

Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

My Brilliant Friend

I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

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“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.

I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.

The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.

“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

I recently did a bit of a book swap with a colleague. I lent her “Skylarking” and she lent me this book. Unfortunately, I then promptly went away to America and it’s such a beautiful edition I didn’t want to chance ruining it or losing it overseas. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition, nicely understated with hints of red and gold in the slipcase and a really gorgeous texture to it. I finally managed to get around to reading it, and I think I probably liked her recommendation better than she liked mine.

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“The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” is an epistolary historical fiction novel by Mary Ann Shaffer. This book is actually Shaffer’s only published work, and she died shortly before it was published. Her niece Annie Barrows, herself a published author, completed the final rewriting and editing of the manuscript. Although there is a wide cast of characters, the main is Juliet, a newspaper columnist who kept up witty commentary throughout World War II. After the war is over, she is struggling to decide what to do next when she receives a letter out of the blue from a man called Dawsey. Dawsey lives on the island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by Germany during the War, and had found a book inscribed with Juliet’s address. Fascinated by his story, and his membership with the mysterious Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, begins corresponding with him and other members.

This is the first book in a while to make me laugh out loud. It has such a delightful beginning and is written in this very charming, British way that is simply captivating. I was surprised to find out the author is actually American because she  absolutely nailed that very exaggerated yet extremely polite style of humour. Juliet is a great character, and meeting the people of Guernsey through her eyes is just lovely. I think the only issue I found with this book is that it seemed to peter off a little towards the end. Maybe because the subject-matter started to get a little more serious. Maybe the relationship development felt a little rushed in one case. Maybe because Shaffer herself wasn’t able to do those final edits before publication – I’m not sure.

Either way, this was really a spirited, upbeat novel that was a wonderful change from some of the heavier books I’ve been reading lately.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Woe to Live On

This is the third book I’ve read by this author. I really, really loved “Winter’s Bone” and “Give us a Kiss”, and this one had been sitting on my shelf for ages waiting for the right time. I borrowed it from a friend who had struggled to finish it, but I given how much I’d enjoyed his other books, I was certain I’d enjoy this one as well. This was my 9th book in my five weeks of American literature, and again, I forgot to take a photo of it. Instead, here’s a photo from an incredible lake I went to in Montana.

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“Woe to Live On” by Daniel Woodrell is a historical fiction set during the American Civil War around the Kansas/Missouri border. The story is told from the perspective of 16 year old Jack Roedel, the son of Dutch immigrants who has joined his childhood friend Jack Bull Chiles in becoming a Bushwhacker. Due to his heritage, Jake isn’t liked by the other Bushwhackers, but his steely nerves and friendship with Jack Bull Chiles earn him first tolerance then begrudging respect amongst the men. However, as the war progresses, more men die and the violence perpetrated by the Bushwhackers becomes less about Southern values and more about personal gain. Left mostly to himself hiding out one winter, Jake becomes friends with another unliked but tolerated Bushwhacker: Daniel Holt, a free black man. As the season thaws, Jake begins to lose his taste for guerrilla warfare.

Some of the incredible things about the books of Woodrell’s I read prior to this one were his fearlessness in tackling complex social issues, his characters and his unflinching portrayal of pockets of America. So (and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say this) when I reached a point where I thought that it was maybe going to be an interracial gay romance set on the Southern side of the Civil War, I was so impressed at the bravery of this book. What a premise! What a literary gamble! However, it turns out that this it is in fact not an interracial gay romance. Instead it is much less groundbreaking exploration of the violence and wildness of young men, the futility and hypocrisy of war and the apparent temperance that a family and hearthside brings to one such hot-blooded man.

This is one of Woodrell’s earliest novels, and I think that his later ones are much better crafted. This one just didn’t have either the tension or the punch that I was expecting. While his writing is fine, the characters were pretty beige and despite all the horse-ridin’, gun-totin’, yee-hawin’ action – the plot was really much more of a gentle hill than any kind of great climax. There were so many times in this book I thought that Woodrell was going to take a risk and do something interesting with his characters but he never did. I think history buffs and people who are interested in the Civil War might get something out of this, but for the rest of you: forget this one and go straight for “Winter’s Bone”.

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