Tag Archives: historical fiction

Mrs. Porter Calling, by A.J. Pearce

This third installment of the Emmy Lake Chronicles is a delightful choice for the long evenings and short, cloudy days of winter.

It’s 1943 London, and Emmy’s new husband is away fighting fascists offstage. The Blitz, fore-fronted in Dear Mrs. Bird, is now in the background. But enough bombings are still taking place to precipitate a tragedy among Emmy’s closest comrades. In its aftermath, Emmy, her neighbors, and we as readers wrestle with the fallout of war.

But as usual, Woman’s Friend has other causes to rally round as well. This time the staff must save save their beloved publication from the devastating “improvements” designed by its new owner, Mrs. Porter.

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I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle (1948) came to my attention as a novel recommended for aspiring writers. The Austenesque plot features a quirky, down-on-their-luck British family in the 1930s. A thwarted novelist father languishes at the helm while the oldest daughter pursues a loveless marriage to save the family fortunes. Her intended is the wealthy young heir of a nearby estate.

The heir has recently returned from America with his brother, who is enamored with the American West. Thus the narrative straddles not only the 19th and 20th centuries but the Atlantic Ocean, flanked by British venerability on one side and American innovation on the other.

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Compelling Historical Fiction: The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi

It’s difficult to enumerate the many ways in which this historical novel impressed and delighted me. To begin with the most fundamental of fiction requisites, Joshi excels in conjuring the sights, sounds, scents, and savors of mid-twentieth century India. Descriptions of aromas (geranium, thyme, frangipani, jasmine, peppermint) and concoctions (pakoras, chapattis, masala, pilau, and lassis) grace the page and tantalize the reader. Having traveled in both North and South India on various occasions, such sensory details inevitably evoke familiar and fond associations.

But unfamiliarity with the subcontinent and its history won’t put readers at a disadvantage. Joshi deftly slips in bits of culture and history, intuitively sensing where explanation is required and avoiding excess. Readers are neither left in the dark nor overwhelmed with information. Nor does Joshi indulge in gratuitous detail. Personal narratives intertwine with the broad sweep of history; everything serves a purpose.

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Love and Assassins: The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams, by Daniel Nayeri

This is a love story. Or so claims Omar, the teller of this tale. Notwithstanding the mention of dreams, one might object to invoking assassination and commerce in the title of a romance. The Many Assassinations of Samir the Seller of Dreams is, nevertheless, a love story of sorts. Not in the way one might expect. But much about Daniel Nayeri’s difficult-to-class novel betrayed my expectations.

Prompted by the title, I anticipated a picaresque tale á la The Music Man; as narrator, an eleventh-century Harold Hill peddling a medieval brand of positive thinking along the Silk Road. Instead, the story opens with the orphan Omar’s description of “the first time [I] was stoned to death.” He goes on to describe how the eponymous Samir buys and thus rescues him from a mob of outraged monks.

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Middle East refugee stories: The Mountains We Carry, by Zaid Brifkani, and A Map of Salt and Stars, by Zeyn Joukhadar

An unconscionable number of months have passed since I listened to these two audiobooks, back to back. However, the length of time between reading and review is no reflection of the impression they made.

The Map of Salt and Stars follows two journeys: An Arab-American family’s harrowing flight from Syria in 2011, and the travels of a young woman apprenticed to twelfth-century cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. It is not uncommon, in dual-narrative stories, for one to overshadow the other. In this case, however, both plot lines hold equal appeal. The dangers and threats of the contemporary tale impose greater suspense. But the twelfth-century tale charms with its touch of mysticism, aptly reflected by the novel’s frame-worthy cover.

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The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk

My husband and I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow together some twentyyears ago. In my memory we started it during a 2003 visit to Turkey, which coincided with a late February snowfall. Clearly this is the power of suggestion at work, as it recently came to my attention that the English translation was published in 2004.

Whatever our setting or the weather, I found the book’sethereal narrative almost as enigmatic as the facts of publication now reveal my memory of its reading to be. But a brief return to Istanbul last year renewed my interest in Pamuk’s works despite their, to me, elusive quality. An enchanting three-day sojourn in Istanbul left me wanting to read something that would reflect the ethos of our travels. A few days later I stumbled upon The Black Book in a Dushanbe bookstore, one of only a few titles available in English.

It proved to be even more perfect choice than I realized at the time. Billed as a mystery, I naively expected something along the lines of conventional detective fiction. Granted, the protagonist, Galip, is the loving husband of the missing person rather than a dispassionate investigator. But the farther I read the less I could make of Galip’s relentless criss-crossing of Istanbul in his search for his wife.

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Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce

I don’t recall where or what I first heard about this book, but as the last in a long line of Mrs. Birds and the author of an epistolary work in progress, I had to investigate. Likewise elusive is the memory of any book that so utterly delighted me with its unadulterated charm, where goodnatured families, kindhearted friends, and generous stangers prevail. Unabashedly optimistic, Dear Mrs. Bird labors under no grim modernist necessity of adhering to stark realism.

Well, yes, there is a war going on in 1940 London, where Emmeline Lake is a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Throughout the first half of the book, lulled into near complacency by Pearce’s lilting wordcraft, her mastery (as near as I can tell) of WWII-era British diction, and Emmy’s relentless good cheer, I felt an occasional twinge of guilt. Should I really be enjoying this so much? After all, people are losing lives and livelihoods right and left in the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. Are Emma, AJ, and I all in a state of denial?

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A History of the Island, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus sat on my shelf for a number of years after a friend gave it to me. During that time I loaned it out at least once, my neglect being no testament to my valuation of it. On the contrary, I suspected it of being highly affecting on account of both craftsmanship and realistic representations of its fifteenth-century protagonist. But the travails of even a fictional saint seemed too much to traverse during a stretch of life that encompassed (sequentially, thank goodness, not all at once) a mother-in-law with dementia, a worldwide pandemic, and a husband with cancer, not to mention a daughter in middle school.

At length, however, advance notice of the impending publication of Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island prompted me to pick up Laurus. While the 2023 book is not a sequel to Laurus, I wanted to be familiar with the author’s earlier work before taking on the new one.

I discovered that while Laurus does engage weighty themes, the author’s wit and the protagonist’s (often implausibly) transcendent state of mind prevent the latter’s trials from overburdening those of us who trudge vicariously alongside him. The setting is our world, but it’s a half-mythic world, where signs and wonders are commonplace. Surreal elements extract the action from the realm of the literal into a space where I, at least, could observe and reflect from a certain remove.

I ended up reading A History for our mother-daughter book when we were assigned to select a book with an unusual narrative style. A History qualifies on many levels. It reads like the history book it purports to be, but the narrative is interspersed with commentary by the centuries-old monarchs of said island.

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The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.

And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.

The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.

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