Tag Archives: historical fiction

The White Mirror, by Elsa Hart

The White Mirror follows inadvertent investigator Li Du into the mountains after he has solved the mystery behind the murder of a Jesuit priest in Jade Dragon Mountain (click here for a brief endorsement). En route to Lhasa, the former imperial librarian finds himself snowed in amongst a company of travelers at a mountain valley inn. Click here for the complete introduction to the ensuing mystery and its milieu available on the author’s web site.

Hart’s Li Du novels present a sometimes disconcerting mix of exoticism and familiarity. The author imbues her characters and their surroundings with a sense of authenticity that makes us feel we could be watching at a wormhole into the distant world of 18th-century Qing China. But her use of standard mystery tropes and her skillful deployment of setting imparts the cozy ambience of a large, open hearth, beside which we sip a cup of puerh tea while a storyteller spins tales within and a blizzard rages without.

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The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart

The premise of Barnaby Mayne drew me in when I first read about it, pre-publication–a mystery set amongst the curio cabinets of an 18th-century English collector of natural history. So I was elated to get my hands on a library copy in December–perfect timing for a cozy mystery.

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Grace, by Natashia Deón, Part I

I met Natashia Deón at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to a standing-room-only conference room on how to deal authentically with faith issues in a post-modern, pluralistic society.

Deón said much that was both practical and inspiring. But the overwhelming impression left by her presentation and my brief personal interaction with her is respect. It was the value with which Deón, a devout Christian, advised writers to handle all faiths. It was the ethic with which she invariably treated her listeners and fellow speakers. And it was the sentiment inspired by her humility, integrity, and clear thinking.

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Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, Part I

Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.

Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.

I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.

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The Lowenskold Ring, by Selma Lagerlof*

Several years ago our family enjoyed the beautifully animated series “Ronja the Robber’s Daughter.” Upon investigating its sources I discovered it was based on a book by the same name written by Astrid Lindgren, Swedish author of Pippi Longstockings. I had read one or two of the Pippi books as a child and found them a bit disorienting. Having read mostly straight fantasy or realistic fiction, I didn’t know how to receive the intrepid Pippi with her impossible personal history. Continue reading

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The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer

A local author introduced to the term Regency romance a few years ago. A genre dedicated to historical novels set during nine years of British history (1811-1820) intrigued me, but not enough to impel me to seek out examples. Until last month, when I ran across a reference to Georgette Heyer (1902-1974), the originator of the genre, respected for her meticulous historical research and accurate depictions of the era. Continue reading

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The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans came to my notice shortly after its publication in 2012, but the emotional complexities resonated a bit too strongly at the time. I returned to the book recently and found it a compelling and thought-provoking story of innocent love, fall from grace, and redemption.

Tom, a lighthouse keeper, embodies aspects of both fallen humanity and a redemptive Christ-figure. The early days of his marriage are painted in idyllic terms–ardent, young love on a picturesque, if isolated, lighthouse island off the coast of Australia.

*Spoiler alert: The remainder of this review reveals plot developments and outcomes.

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Recent Reads: Historical and Epistolary Fiction

It has been quite some time since I was at leisure to post a thorough book review. But as I recently shared book recommendations with a couple of friends, it seemed worthwhile post these brief observations for a wider audience.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

I recently determined to read more contemporary historical fiction, as I am working in the genre myself. I thank Jane Kirkpatrick, a notable historical novelist from Oregon, for recommending Ruta Sepetys’s books.

Salt to the Sea is a multiple-point-of-view novel culminating in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in January 1945, the deadliest maritime disaster in history. The POV characters represent Prussia, Germany, Lithuania, and Poland. Sepetys herself is Lithuanian-American.

Although the subject matter is grim, the characters are well drawn and (aside from those who aren’t supposed to be) sympathetic. I found the “shoe poet,” an elderly cobbler with a penchant for philosophizing, particularly appealing. While tragedy is unavoidable, the author doesn’t leave us crushed by it, and magnanimity and nobility of character are, if not precisely rewarded, celebrated. Sepetys’s other work is high on my to-read list. The Fountains of Silence is her most recent.

Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN (Li Du Novels)

This work of 18th-century historical fiction represents a comfortably familiar detective story–complete with a mysterious murder, a proliferation of suspects, and satisfying execution of justice–in an unfamiliar setting. In a culture that is far removed in time and, for most of her readers, place, Hart succeeds in crafting an array of sympathetic characters. The storyteller-sidekick Hamza is a particular gem. And how could you go wrong with a detective who is a librarian? (Of the Chinese imperial court … exiled and wandering in Tibet … the plot thickens.) Upon completing this initial volume, Brian and I proceeded directly to the second and have now embarked on the third.

Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy (Penguin Classics)

My daughter and I just read Dear Enemy and re-read Daddy Long-Legs for our mother-daughter book club. I actually enjoyed the sequel more than Daddy Long-Legs, though preference for one book over the other was pretty well equally divided in our group. Both books are epistolary novels, in which the narrative is delivered in the form of letters. As almost half of my historical novel is composed of letters, I can attest to the challenge of preventing such a work from devolving into a dry recitation of facts and events. But the distinctive voices and witty turns of phrase employed by Webster’s letter writers  prevent any such literary catastrophe.

Daddy Long-Legs was published in 1912, four years after Anne of Green Gables, and our group observed a number of similarities in theme, style, and content. For starters, both Anne and Judy are orphans. In Dear Enemy, Sallie, a college friend of Judy’s, reluctantly accepts the post of superintendent of the orphanage in which Judy grew up. Much of the book’s appeal for me lay in Sallie’s stories of the children’s antics and the institutional reforms she undertook. Also of interest are the differences and trends in public care of minors over the past hundred years. I don’t know how many of Webster’s views were already espoused by policy makers of her time, but some of the ideas generated by Sallie are now standard practice in the foster care system.

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Girl at Arms, by Jaye Bennett

Notwithstanding the remarkable youth of the historical Joan of Arc, I wouldn’t have automatically assumed her a ready subject for a middle grade novel. Of course it’s impossible not to admire her courage and determination, and I recognize that she must be considered in the context of her times. But let’s just say that her story has the potential to be a little … troubling.

For starters there are the voices. Not that I don’t believe in visions, but the question of whether God would employ them for the defense of a European monarch has always raised doubts in my mind. Then there’s the fact that Joan was leading armies into battle, which inevitably involves violence. And then there’s the ending: she gets burned at the stake. That alone was enough to make me a reluctant reader. Continue reading

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Alphabet of Dreams, by Susan Fletcher

What a felicitous find! I was searching for Susan Cooper’s young adult novels when this previously unknown-to-me work by Susan Fletcher caught my eye. What a surprise to learn that it concerns ancient Persia (a general interest of mine) and the Magi (Brian and I once brainstormed a novel not unlike Susan’s after a one-week visit to Iran)  and that the author lives just an hour and a half away!

All that excitement could have been preparatory to a disappointment, but it most definitely was not. Fletcher writes both engagingly and “elegantly” (in the words of a NY Times reviewer of Shadow Spinner). I am (alas) one of those readers who often skims over descriptive passages, but I sat spellbound while Fletcher’s magical metaphors conjured up mirages before my very eyes. Only they seemed much more substantial than mirages. Continue reading

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