Category Archives: Historical Fiction

09) Spindle

By: Shonna Slayton

Date Finished: 02.18.17

11. Spindle

Spindle. What a lovely and thoughtful story. This Sleeping Beauty-inspired tale is set in a spinning mill in the late 1800s. It’s a concept that is brilliant in it’s simplicity; of course the world needs to see how Sleeping Beauty would navigate a room that contains hundreds of spindles.

Like Cinderella’s Dress, this is a continuation of the fairy tale rather than a strict adaptation.  There are several parallels to the original while remaining plausible in the historical context. Slayton weaves the two constructs together so well they become nearly inseparable. Naturally, we can pick at the threads in our world but the fabric of Slayton’s universe is tight and strong. Certain historical events very believably become the work of fairy magic. Meanwhile, this Briar Rose is a sixteen year old orphan with three younger siblings to care for. Mill conditions are pretty much Dickensian at the time and Briar is desperate to keep her siblings away from the workhouses – not exactly a charmed life.

Briar has a devil and an angel on her shoulder in the form of her two roommates, Ethel and Mim. Ethel is an unabashed feminist campaigning for voting rights and temperance. Mim is more invested in fashion and catching the eye of a rich suitor. They are both supportive of Briar’s efforts to keep her family together even though they have wildly different approaches. (I’ll let you decide which is the devil and which is the angel.) On the whole, the relationship between the three of them is complex and very realistic. The rest of the cast is equally well-rounded and give Briar a lot to play off of — for better or for worse. (Just forget that jerk Wheeler already!)

The setting, these relationships, they make Briar a fighter from the beginning. She’s doing the best she can with the options available and though magic turns her life upside down, Briar is always after one thing: protection for her family. Her course of action changes multiple times but her objective and her resolve never wavers. It’s an interesting thing to see in contrast to the Disney tale of a mostly passive Sleeping Beauty. I’m grateful that Slayton took the opportunity to give this Sleeping Beauty more agency than most.

As far as historical fiction fairy tale adaptations go, this one fits as perfectly as Cinderella’s magic shoe. (Psst – Cinderella’s Shoes is another great Shonna Slayton book)

At the end of the day: Definitely for me

P.S. Spindle makes for an excellent salon read!

11. Spindle Salon

08) Inside Out & Back Again

By: Thanhha Lai

Date Finished: 02.05.17

08. Inside Out & Back Again

I admit that I have stalled in writing this. It’s been hard to get words around this book when it speaks so well for itself. In the simplest terms it’s the story of a young girl, Hà, who flees Vietnam with her family and ends up in Alabama. It explores her love for her home despite the dangers there and her struggle to find her place in a culture that wants nothing to do with her.

The story is fiction but draws heavily on the author’s personal experience. It’s written in a series of free verse poems — because it’s the closest structure to Vietnamese, Lai says. The poetry also allows Hà’s emotional life to be the central story. Through that emotion, Lai captures so perfectly the universal spirit of childhood. Hà is a young girl who is frustrated by limitations. A child who is selfish at times but is also lovingly sacrificial. A human who misses her father and her country and who she might have been if the war hadn’t torn apart their home.

A year ago, this may have been a beautifully written book with a historical setting. However, it’s impossible to read it today without thinking politically. With the refugee crisis continuing and xenophobic policies gaining momentum, every natural-born American would benefit from reading this. If this book does not grow your compassion, likely nothing will.

I often start with a quote but today I will finish with one:

Mother says,
People share
when they know
they have escaped hunger.

Shouldn’t people share
because there is hunger?

At the end of the day: Absolutely for me and absolutely recommended for where we’re at in the world right now

03) The Cure for Dreaming

By: Cat Winters

Date Finished: 01.12.17

by Cat Winters

As I walked into my local bookstore to buy a calendar and absolutely nothing else, my eye drifted to a towering bookcase I had never before seen. It was pressed against the front window and flanked one side of the only entrance, and yet it was a surprise to me. My feet immediately abandoned their mission to investigate. This mysterious case housed shelf after shelf of used YA books. Some titles were familiar and/or interesting but this one hooked me. I left with a shiny copy of this novel and no calendar.

Take a look at that cover again, friends; savor that title. How could I resist?

I didn’t buy it entirely on impulse; I read about half of the first chapter and a few random paragraphs in the middle to make sure it was more than just a pretty face. The writing isn’t terribly complex but it is readable. The plot seemed interesting enough to make up for any lackluster writing, and it was…almost.

The book is set in Oregon and centers around the suffragist movement. Olivia is just independent enough to horrify her traditional father. He hires a hypnotist to cure Olivia of her wayward thoughts which results in her seeing the world as it really is — controlling men become monsters while compliant women fade into transparency. The book is unapologetically feminist which works within the setting. What doesn’t work so well are the characters.

Even our girl Olivia — the feisty, irrepressible heroine! — falls a little flat. Winters did provide a varied cast of minor characters; together they make a good ensemble but their personal quirks come across as inconsistent rather than complex. One of the big draws of the book was the concept of Olivia seeing people’s true selves in a physical way. However, this only worsened the problem, reducing everyone to a melodramatic caricature. It also made Olivia look stupid for needing supernatural intervention to realize certain people are shady.

And yet… I’ve seen worse. MUCH worse. The book held my interest enough that I finished it in just a few sittings and would consistently read past the “one more chapter” mark. The plot takes a few tangents but overall it was pretty tidy. Despite the stock characters, you do like who you’re supposed to like and dislike who you’re supposed to dislike. Even if you question Olivia’s choices, you always want her to succeed. And while the writing won’t knock you head-over-heels, it is respectable.

This is the kind of book that will ring the doorbell rather than honk from the end of the driveway, and the conversation will be pleasant enough. You won’t think the evening was a waste but there probably won’t be a second date.

At the end of the day: Sure, yeah, okay

19) Cinderella’s Dress

By: Shonna Slayton

Date Finished: 06.08.14

by Shonna Slayton

As cowardly as running away seemed, it might have been the bravest thing she’d ever done.

Kate is caught in a rapidly changing world, navigating high school as the Second World War claims the services of both her father and brother.  Her mother is the ultimate stage mom, pushing auditions and model gigs on her when Kate has no desire to be onstage.  She’s drawn to the elaborate window displays at the department store where her mom works, and longs to help bring them to life.  Unfortunately, that is strictly a man’s work, and Kate must push her way through the smallest opening to participate.  The war also brings relatives from Poland to their door, seeking refuge.  They carry with them the dress belonging to the real Cinderella and need Kate’s help to keep it hidden from the descendants of the wicked stepsisters.

Cinderella’s Dress is the hot chocolate of fairy tale adaptations (or tea, if you’re more Britishly inclined).  It is sweet and soothing, but don’t forget to watch the temperature.  The history of the dress is not entirely peaceful, and a sense of danger permeates.  This adds heat to the lovely coming-of-age story.

I enjoy the time-span of the novel (It can be a little hard to track, but look for the letters – they’ll lead you through the major jumps).  The war is well-established at the time the book begins, and is an offscreen character, ravaging Eurpoe and Japan while Kate is safe in New York.  Even without bombs falling on Kate’s world, the war orchestrates the whole plot.  The Polish relatives only find Kate because they were driven out of their home country.  And with all the men leaving for military service, Kate is able to play a more active role in producing the window displays.  The war isn’t the whole story though, and the book explores the tension of the women having to give up their jobs for the men returning to work.  I would have loved to see even more of this conflict because it is a fascinating conundrum.

I’m also a fan of Kate as a leading lady.  Others push her, sometimes quite adamantly, in many separate directions as she’s trying to find her place in the world.  While she is intrigued by the dresses, he wants to make an informed decision about taking on the responsibility of taking care of it.  But she also makes some pretty poor and rash choices, particularly in things she says, which keeps her human.  I appreciate that aspect as well.

Strictly speaking, the plot is less of a fairy tale adaptation and more an extension of the Cinderella story.  However, there are some delightful hints at original tale in Kate’s life sprinkled throughout.  This is the perfect day-off read, so cozy up, and savor this story.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:

Lately I have noticed a massive increase of typos in books.  With quicker editing processes, I’m afraid pandemic is here to stay.  Most of the typos I’ve seen are in books by established authors, including Stephen King – the Eye of the Dragon was riddled with them.  For the most part, the typos are obvious and don’t inhibit the plot too much – although a mid-chase scene chapter that opens with “Easter!” instead of “Faster!” will definitely take you out of the moment.

I haven’t mentioned this before because, well, I’m sure there are plenty of typos in this blog, and why bother calling attention to them when they’re obviously an oversight?  Unfortunately, Cinderella’s Dress suffers from a typo that doesn’t look like a typo, which is why I bring up the issue.  Slayton weaves Polish words throughout the book and you can tell they’re used deliberately.  Early on, the English word for ‘Cinderella’ is used when the character has only heard the Polish word at that point.  The rest of the book is extremely careful about when each language is used.  It is a mistake, yes, but no more intentional than the Faster/Easter mess up.  So, don’t despair at the typo.  Even Steven King is not immune!

At the end of the day: Really for me

10) Hollow City

Book Two of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children

By: Ransom Riggs

Date Finished: 03.26.14

by Ransom Riggs

“Do you ever find yourself climbing into an open grave during a bombing raid,” I said, “and just wish you’d stayed in bed?”

So it had come to this: everything depended on a pigeon.

The peculiar children are in danger and do everything they can to stay ahead of it.  (Seriously, I don’t know how to add any more detail without spoiling the first book entirely.)

Oh my gracious, what a difference a book makes!  Miss Peregrine’s is a good first novel, but this second book is much smoother.  On the whole, the pictures flow seamlessly with the narrative — more often than not, when I tried to guess what was in the upcoming photo, I was wrong.  Considering how contrived the pictures were in the first book, being wrong was a profound relief.

Plot-wise, it’s a travelling story with obstacles.  Lots and lots of obstacles.  There were times I wondered if it was going anywhere in particular, but it was interesting enough to see the children interact with the outside world, especially in the midst of World War Two in England.  Whenever someone decides that hanging out in the middle of a blitz is the safest option, you know I’m hooked.  The end has some nice surprises and provides a slick set up for the third book.  For me, the biggest hang up with this book is the excessive arguing.  With the large cast that Riggs does well to maintain, disagreements are only natural, but begin to drag down the story after a certain point.

Overall, I liked the shape of it, I liked the sequences, and I loved where it ended – cliffhanger notwithstanding.  I’m happy to see how much his writing has progressed and am definitely excited to keep following his books.

(This book will always have a special place in my heart because I attended my very first book signing for it.  I only found out about the event because I had a dream about the third book and in the morning looked up the release date of this one.  Hollow City hit stores three days before my dream and Riggs came into town the next day.  It was meant to be!)

At the end of the day: Really for me

3) Code Name Verity

By: Elizabeth Wein

Date Finished: 1.30.2014

by Elizabeth Weinby Elizabeth Wein

It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.

Two girls, best friends because of the war and cruelly separated by the same war.  They made an excellent team, but after their plane was damaged in Nazi-occupied France they were pulled apart to face the horrors alone.

Oh, my gracious, what a MASTERPIECE.  Truly, truly this book is a work of art.  There are many things that are inherently interesting about this plot: World War II, a female spy, a female pilot during war, a life story scratched out in a Nazi prison cell.  This book is intriguing without even trying.  What makes it COMPELLING is that the two girls are such GOOD FRIENDS.  They are sisters as truly as if they were flesh and blood.  Their devotion to each other makes the story so much more personal somehow and the danger that much more devastating.

Wein is a master artisan, mushing together anecdotes from the prison with the story of their friendship.  Suspense is effectively built, then interrupted, sometimes as abruptly as leaving a word incomplete.  It’s a cruel, cruel trick to play on the emotions, but it is exquisite from a literary standpoint.  She also has well-placed grammatical errors – mostly missing punctuation or capitals – and will use repetition to give a visceral sense of what’s happening.  There’s a lovely little quote from the New York Times on the cover which proclaims this book is “a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel.”  That’s it in a nutshell.  It is wickedly mesmerizing and oh, so worth the read.

If THIS is what Historical Fiction is all about, I may be switching genres.

(Although, I’m not sure I can handle the almost-truth.  Fantasy allows one a bit more disbelief.)

My library stocked this book in the Teen Room, so I’m going to consider this a young adult book.  This is kind of a big deal because my library tends to shift YA books into other categories, leaving only the smallest selection in the Teen Room.  (I’m not sure I would’ve labeled it YA, but I’m thrilled that other people have.)  I mention this because this book alone can trump all arguments that Young Adult books/books about women/books written by women are fluff.  It is a powerful story and I am so grateful to Wein for bringing it into the world.

At the end of the day: Just exactly for me.  In every way.

6) The Book Thief

By: Markus Zusak

Date Finished: 07.22.13

by Markus Zusak

As a witness to all the worst atrocities throughout history, Death is looking for some, well, humanity in humanity.  Death himself finds hope in the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany at the precipice of World War II.  Liesel Meminger is sent away from home to live with foster parents, gentle Hans and roaring Rosa Huberman.  She is grieving for her brother and doesn’t understand the fear gripping her country, but she is a fighter and takes to her new life with a fierce fearlessness.  She finds power in the written word and her love affair with books shapes her relationship with the entire town, earning her the respect of many.  In a time when kindness is a dangerous quality, the books give her an escape from the terrors around her and hope for something better.

This book is truly a masterpiece.  Zusak doesn’t mask the horror of the times, but it is at its heart a story of hope and goodness.  It helps that the events are seen from a child’s perspective.  Liesel doesn’t understand the politics happening around her; she just knows enough to navigate interactions with people in her neighborhood.  As she gets older, she learns more about what the government is doing and must come to terms with her place in it all.  She carries much weight on her shoulders, but retains a child-like naivety and sense of justice that is beautiful.  With Death as the narrator, there’s an even further degree of separation.  He has no influence on the events, therefore no investment in them, and a has much more impassive view on death in general (naturally).  Death also has no need to stick to conventional storytelling techniques, so the foreshadowing tends to be very direct (“if so-and-so had made a different choice, he wouldn’t have died so young” — that sort of thing).  Zusak is careful not to overuse this power, making the moments of blatant foreshadowing a success.  So while it is a dark story by necessity, the narration of Liesel + Death provide a perfect perspective.

Formatting also plays a major role in this book.  It is divided into several parts, each part with a unique title, featuring a list of seemingly unconnected phrases.  These phrases turn into chapters (sometimes the chapter title is pulled directly from the list, but not always) and a logic emerges.  Within the text, there are short interruptions that relate to the story, but break the rhythm of the paragraphs.  These are bolded, centered, given wide margins, and titled.  The titles serve as an introduction: “A SMALL FACT” or “REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT” or “A DEFINITION” etc. with very few (if any) repeated phrases.  The fact or definition or whatever is briefly given and the story continues in its regularly formatted programming.  While these break away pieces disrupt the flow of the story, they also enhance it in a rather fascinating way.

This captivating storytelling would be nothing without a good story to back it up.  I haven’t read or watched much about Nazi Germany outside of class assignments, so the majority of my exposure follows the plights of the Jews in Concentration Camps.  The Book Thief gives a different tale — the plight of an average German family who is trying to survive without surrendering to the Fuhrer.  This book explores the need for compromises in public and private rebellions to preserve their convictions.  More than that, it’s the chronicle of a town’s life.  It’s the story of inseparable friends, of shifting alliances, and of deep-rooted rivalries.  All the characters that comprise the town have specific beliefs, quirks, and ingrained patterns.  As the war draws nearer, patterns begin to break down in fascinating and deeply realistic ways.  And it’s Liesel with her books that hold what’s left together.

At the end of the day: Really, really for me

17) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

By: Ransom Riggs

Date Finished: 12.20.12

By Ransom Riggs

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman has long given up on the dream of an extraordinary life.  Stuck in the family retail business in Florida, he lacks pretty much any ambition until his grandfather is killed by an unknown creature.  With his dying words, Grandpa Portman sends Jacob on a quest to find the remnants of his old life in Ireland.  Jacob’s not sure what he expects to find on the all but deserted island, but he soon learns that his grandfather’s unbelievable tales — and photographs — of children with peculiar abilities could be real.  In a mix of present day and an impossible past, Jacob breaks out of his apathy to uncover his grandfather’s secrets.

The style of this book is wonderfully familiar, yet stands on its own.  It has recognizable elements taken from the Hero’s Journey and bears the markers of a fantasy novel, but is decidedly modern.  It’s partially a coming-of-age novel that happens a few years after the main character should have come of age and the transition from apathetic teenager to epic hero is slow, subtle, and not fully realized at the end of the book — a more realistic process than your typical fantasy hero to fit the contemporary setting.  But while it feels like several books I’ve read before, it takes its own shape and somehow transcends archetype.  Also, the books I’m reminded of do not resemble one another — a successful melding of genre and style.  If Riggs has taken ideas from other novels, he cast a very wide net and fashioned something completely unique.  And let’s face it, all stories are stolen to some degree, so at least he had the respect and creativity to go somewhere new.

However, stealing ideas from the photographs didn’t serve Riggs as well as I had hoped.  If you stand in a bookstore and select a book by its cover, this one certainly stands out.  When I discovered there are more pictures integrated into the plot, the book was irresistible.  Unfortunately, the inclusion of the photos were like tearing down a curtain that served to hide an illusion.  Riggs called so much attention to them that they didn’t come across as illustrations as I had expected.  The pictures spoke volumes on their own and I wished the explanations had been minimized.  As it is, it’s a bit obvious that he constructed the story around the photographs, which isn’t a problem in itself because the story is a good one, but he showed his hand a little too clearly when he came to each picture.  Perhaps the writing was no different than if he used illustrations, but it felt off because illustrations are drawn from the descriptions and in this case, the descriptions were extracted from the pictures.

That aside, the story is a compelling one.  It is wonderfully paced and has the right balance of surprise and predictability.  A blurb on the cover specifies that this is his first novel, which, though I hate to say it, can be felt a bit (mostly just my irritation with the photos, I think).  Even so, it is well-polished and features a strong voice.  It may be his first novel, but I am keeping a close eye out for the second.

At the end of the day: Really for me

0) Leviathan Trilogy

Leviathan, Behemoth, & Goliath

By: Scott Westerfeld

Date Finished: Sometime in December 2011

By Scott Westerfeld

This is not part of my 2012 adventure (See: About), but I read them recently and for the first time, so I thought I’d start here while I finish my first book of the year.

A girl disguised as a boy in the military.  A prince on the run from his own people.  An alternate history of World War I and my very first Steampunk novel.  It’s Britain’s fabricated animals versus Germany’s fighting machines as war spreads rapidly across the globe in a masterful blend of historical and imagined events.  Sometimes Westerfeld’s changes produce the same result as the historical account and sometimes they do alter the direction of the war.  Either way, the changes are specific and effective.  Seriously, Scott Westefeld is a genius.

Deryn knows the risk she’s taking, posing as a boy, but this doesn’t prevent her from being impetuous.  She speaks out of turn, knows things she shouldn’t, fears nothing except discovery, and is fiercely loyal to her country and her friends.  Hearing about the world in Deryn’s voice is hilarious.

Prince Alek feels largely responsible for the war — never mind the fact the world was waiting for an excuse to explode — his family’s problems produced the spark.  As such, he believes it is his destiny to stop the fighting and will do anything, however brash, for that cause.  Jolted out of a sheltered existence, Alek can seem a bit direction-less and almost naive.   But he holds nothing back and acts on the behalf of others rather than play politics.  It is beautiful to watch his story unfold.

A wonderful supporting cast, also a blend of real and imagined people, play their roles perfectly.  The world we’re introduced to is expansive, expertly wrought, and thrilling.  Simply flawless.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me.  All three of them.  Really.