Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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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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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

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