Historical Fiction

All posts tagged Historical Fiction

Catherine, Called Birdy

Published October 26, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

catherine called Birdy cover

Review of Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Overview from www.goodreads.com: Catherine feels trapped. Her father is determined to marry her off to a rich man–any rich man, no matter how awful.

But by wit, trickery, and luck, Catherine manages to send several would-be husbands packing. Then a shaggy-bearded suitor from the north comes to call–by far the oldest, ugliest, most revolting suitor of them all.

Unfortunately, he is also the richest.

Can a sharp-tongued, high-spirited, clever young maiden with a mind of her own actually lose the battle against an ill-mannered, piglike lord and an unimaginative, greedy toad of a father?

Deus! Not if Catherine has anything to say about it!

My Review:

The story of Catherine, a girl of fourteen who comes from a moderately wealthy family, is told to the reader from the diary she writes in every day. The first entry records the fact that her brother is responsible both for her being able to read and write and for the fact that she is being forced to write her thoughts down. The diary itself takes us through a year of her life.

I got this book out of curiosity after I spied on the website that the library has for those who want to borrow e-books. I never imagined that I would like it so much. I thought of it only as a short book to pass the time until I found another one.

I not only liked it though, I absolutely loved it. I think it has been a while since I read a book that I could honestly say that I loved but this one was great. Not only did I appreciate the author’s attempts to portray the Middle Ages as realistically as possible but I was also surprised by how funny it was. The main character is not type of girl who stays out of trouble and she is not exactly an all-out rebel either but she does get into some scrapes once and while and they are hilarious. Not only that but hearing her thoughts about people and some of the things that she does to show her displeasure with her lot kept made me laugh out loud. And there are very few books that can make me do that.

Here is an example:

“More lady-lessons. It is impossible to do all and be all a lady must be and not tie oneself in a knot…A lady must have six hands! She must not look proud nor yet too humble, least people say she is proud of her humility. She must not talk overmuch yet not be silent, lest people think she does not know how to converse. She must not show anger, nor sulk, nor scold, nor overeat, nor overdrink, nor swear. God’s thumbs! I am going out to the barn to jump, fart, and pick my teeth!”

The main conflict in the story, besides Catherine’s desire to escape being a lady, is her attempt to keep her father from marrying her off to some old weirdo for money. She prefers not to marry at all but if she must marry then she would rather marry someone close to her own age. This is where many of her troubles come from as well as her desire to help others, such as some of the villagers that are under her father’s thumb.

If there is any downside to this story, I can’t see it. I didn’t even find any swear words unless you count Catherine’s own attempts at swearing by saying “God’s thumbs” or “Corpus bones” which just make me laugh. She is one of the most likeable characters I have read about for a long time. I think I will order the e-book version of this so that I can have this one permanently. I think I could read it again and again.

P.S. This will probably be the last time I will be posting on this site. I am moving over to http://myliteraryleanings.blogspot.com for future reviews since there seems to be more interest there and more flexibility.


A White Wind Blew

Published September 28, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

a white wind blew cover

Review of A White Wind Blew by James Markert

Overview from www.bn.com:

When the body fails, you’ve got two choices. Send a doctor in, or send a prayer up. And if neither works?

You’ll find Dr. Wolfgang Pike at his piano.

Music has always been Wolfgang’s refuge. It’s betraying him now, as he struggles to compose a requiem for his late wife, but surely the right ending will come to him. Certainly it’ll come more quickly than a cure for his patients up at Waverly Hills, the tuberculosis hospital, where nearly a body an hour leaves in a coffin. Wolfgang can’t seem to save anyone these days, least of all himself.

Sometimes we just need to know we’re not the only ones in the fight. A former concert pianist checks in, triggering something deep inside Wolfgang, and spreading from patient to patient. Soon Wolfgang finds himself in the center of an orchestra that won’t give up, with music that won’t stop. A White Wind Blew delivers a sweeping crescendo of hope in a time of despair, raising compelling questions about faith and confession, music and medicine,and the undying force of love.

My Review:

This is a sad but beautiful story. Mostly sad though. Our main character, Wolfgang Pike, is both doctor and future priest but that was years ago. He has yet to finish his seminary training and is only about half-way through. His training was interrupted by a marriage that ended in the tragic death of his wife. When she died, Wolfgang vows to resume his studies, thinking that he can never love again.

In the meantime he becomes a doctor and gets a job at Waverly Hills, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. It is the 1920’s  and the preferred treatment seems to consist most of sun therapy, that is the patient is basically told to sunbathe in hopes that it will reduce the effects of the disease.

A few patients do seem to get better and they eventually make “the Walk” that shows that they are strong enough to leave the place. Those patients still have an uphill battle when they go out in the world among the healthy. But some of them come back to help others.

Wolfgang tells himself and the priests at the seminary that he is only staying at Waverly because he is needed there. TB has made a resurgence in the area and he wants to help but three years go by. Three years and he is showing no signs of leaving. And he seems to be falling in love again though he doesn’t want to admit it to anyone, let alone himself.

And there is the music. Wolfgang loves it, was raised on it. He will play to any patient at the hospital that asks it of him. And it seems to be working. Many of them are getting better.

When he finds some musicians and singers among the patients, he decides to start an “orchestra.” I put that in quotation marks because he only has three real instruments playing in this “orchestra.”

Some don’t like Wolfgang’s orchestra but in particular they don’t like the fact that he has invited some patients from the “colored” sanatorium down the hill to join with the whites. Some amateur clansmen will do anything to stop him, even killing those involved if necessary. They also don’t like the fact that Wolfgang is Catholic.

And now for the negatives. There are a few sexual scenes as well as some language but I didn’t find it that it overpowered the plot. I think the story might be a bit too sad for some but it wasn’t nearly as depressing as some of the books I reviewed in the past. At least there is a positive overall tone at the end so I didn’t find it to be too much of a downer.

So in summary, I guess, I liked though it might now be one of my favorites. Still I think I feel comfortable in recommending it to a friend or anyone else looking for some thought-provoking historical fiction.

The Steel Wave

Published September 7, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

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Review of The Steel Wave by Jeff Shaara

Overview from www.goodreads.com: General Dwight Eisenhower once again commands a diverse army that must find its single purpose in the destruction of Hitler’s European fortress. His primary subordinates, Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery, must prove that this unique blend of Allied armies can successfully confront the might of Adolf Hitler’s forces, who have already conquered Western Europe. On the coast of France, German commander Erwin Rommel fortifies and prepares for the coming invasion, acutely aware that he must bring all his skills to bear on a fight his side must win. But Rommel’s greatest challenge is to strike the Allies on his front, while struggling behind the lines with the growing insanity of Adolf Hitler, who thwarts the strategies Rommel knows will succeed.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Jesse Adams, a no-nonsense veteran of the 82nd Airborne, parachutes with his men behind German lines into a chaotic and desperate struggle. And as the invasion force surges toward the beaches of Normandy, Private Tom Thorne of the 29th Infantry Division faces the horrifying prospects of fighting his way ashore on a stretch of coast more heavily defended than the Allied commanders anticipate–Omaha Beach.

My Review:

The Steel Wave is the second book in Jeff Shaara’s World War II trilogy. I read and reviewed the first one, The Rising Tide a couple of months ago and like it in spite of the fact that it was different from the stuff that I normally read. War novels are not normally my thing but I found these first two books compelling so far.

This one picks up not long after we left off the first one. Herr Rommel has been sent to France in spite of the fact that he is drawing more ire from Hitler every day. Adams has been put back in action just in time for D Day along with all the troops under him, including Unger. Eisenhower is going nuts trying to make the British and American sides happy, all the while planning D Day and fielding complaints about Monty. And Monty and Patton are, well, busy being Monty and Patton.

The Rommel story line on this one gets really interesting here I think. I always thought he was a fascinating character since the first novel, especially when I would be reading the story and finding myself secretly rooting for him despite the fact that he was working for the other side. Shush, don’t tell anyone. Even as I was reading this one, I kept thinking to myself: What’s going to happen to Rommel? He just seems to have some very likeable qualities such as his affection for his wife and later, his son.

Anyway, in this one Rommel is presented with a plot to assassinate Hitler. It’s incredible really. I mean he is a high-ranking German officer and people are asking him if he wants to help assassinate Hitler. A couple of different people keep trying to convince him throughout the course of the novel, citing some really excellent reasons too. It will be good for the country Field Marshal. Hitler is dragging Germany down. If Hitler is dead we can make peace with the Allies and end this unwinnable war.

However Rommel just can’t do it. At first he is only worried about getting caught. But in the end he says killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference. He would just be replaced by some other nutcase and the war would go one. But will his indecisiveness help him? Or will he go down anyway?

Of course, there is also the whole story of the D Day invasion. And there is a lot of fighting and drama there. Everybody hates Monty it seems. Maybe that could have been a TV show to go up against “Everybody Love Raymond.”  Ha, ha. Sorry I couldn’t resist but seriously Ike seems to spend the bulk of his time defending the guy who doesn’t seem to deliver half the time. Everyone, even Churchill himself, is just begging him to complain about the guy so that Churchill will have a reason to fire but Ike doesn’t take the bait.

All in all, this was a great read, even though I didn’t understand what was happening half the time nor could I keep track of which weapons were which.

The only downside was the swearing. I don’t know why but it seemed like there was a lot more of it in this one. Maybe it is just me though. Still I liked it. Have you read it? What did you think?

Contains: war violence, foul language

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Published July 27, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

In the Shadow of the Banyan cover

Review of In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Overview from www.goodreads.com: For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus.

Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

My Review:

The book for this week will be one of my few forays into the world of Literary Fiction. It was recommended by one of my writing magazines and it sounded intriguing.

In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of the experiences of one seven-year-old Cambodian girl when the Khmer Rouge win the civil war in that country and attempt to change it into a Communist nation.

The girl, Raami, has been born into the royal family of Cambodia and her father is considered a minor nobleman as well as something of a famous poet. As if war wasn’t bad enough, Raami’s life is about to get much worse when they are forced from their home in Phnom Penh in the new government’s attempt to make peasants out of city dwellers.

The family is moved around until her father finally admits his royal heritage to the new government and is taken away. That is when Raami’s world really begins to change. As per her father’s admonition, she and the rest of their family must never admit their royal origins. It is the only way for them to survive and this is what her father wanted. He sacrificed himself for them though it soon appears to Raami that is all in vain when her family members are dying right and left.

It isn’t until near the end of the story that Raami finally understands her father’s words to her before he was taken away and what he was trying to do.  She vows to carry the memory of her father’s love and sacrifice around for the rest of her life. It is all she can do to survive the atrocities the government carries out against her and keep his memory alive.

This story is very sad yet beautiful at the same time because of the author’s beautiful and poetic prose. Some awful, dehumanizing things happen yet the way she weaves the tale makes it beautiful and bittersweet.

It reminded me a lot of Lisa See’s book Dreams of Joy which covers “The Great Leap Forward” period of China’s history. Both stories cover similar atrocities as well as mass starvation of the people. Under the guise of helping the poor, the governments involved simply use them to further their aims of proving to the rest of the world that they are in the right.

In this book, the government is referred to as “The Organization.” As a citizen of Cambodia, each person “belongs” to The Organization and can be ordered to go wherever officials send them and to do whatever work they deem necessary. To be an ideal citizen one must essentially become a robot. Any display of family loyalty or emotion in general is considered “unrevolutionary” and can be punished severely.

I liked this book, in spite of the heavy content. It is a story that needs to be told and the author at least makes it as painless as possible. I am therefore recommending it highly because no matter how sad it may make you feel, you need to know this story. It is based on the truth.

Contains: lots of violence, some language.

The Rising Tide

Published June 29, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

the rising tide cover

Review of The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara

Overview from www.bn.com (shortened for length): As Hitler conquers Poland, Norway, France, and most of Western Europe, England struggles to hold the line. When Germany’s ally Japan launches a stunning attack on Pearl Harbor, America is drawn into the war, fighting to hold back the Japanese conquest of the Pacific, while standing side-by-side with their British ally, the last hope for turning the tide of the war.

Through unforgettable battle scenes in the unforgiving deserts of North Africa and the rugged countryside of Sicily, Shaara tells this story through the voices of this conflict’s most heroic figures, some familiar, some unknown. As British and American forces strike into the “soft underbelly” of Hitler’s Fortress Europa, the new weapons of war come clearly into focus. In North Africa, tank battles unfold in a tapestry of dust and fire unlike any the world has ever seen. In Sicily, the Allies attack their enemy with a barely tested weapon: the paratrooper. As battles rage along the coasts of the Mediterranean, the momentum of the war begins to shift, setting the stage for the massive invasion of France, at a seaside resort called Normandy.

My Review:

The Rising Tide is the first in trilogy of novels about World War II that begins after America joins the war on the Allied side. This is the second novel about period that I have read in two weeks but it could not be more different from last weeks’ book.

A Mortal Terror focused a little more on solving the mystery of who “the red heart killer” was than in the war itself which merely served as backdrop. I did get a glimpse though of the war and an interesting one at that. I liked the way the author contrasted the idea of a soldier who kills for country with a murder who kills people as part of a game.

The Rising Tide however has only soldiers who kill and fight though that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Like the previous book though, it also illuminates the character of those involved, including some on the Nazi side.

For me this part was perhaps the most interesting. The character of Erwin Rommel was previously unknown to me. I thought that the term “the desert fox” sounded vaguely familiar though I never would have guessed that it described a Nazi. And for all his ability to see beyond Hitler and the Nazi party, Rommel seems to close his eyes to the evil of the party. The Nazi’s have helped him advance his ideas and his book and even himself. That’s all that matters to him. That and his wife.

The hard part, besides the length of the book, was understanding the military jargon. I didn’t know about the different officer rankings. I don’t understand always who is above whom unless the characters reveal it in their speech. I thought a general was a general but it turns out that there is a hierarchy within the ranking of general even. Yes, I know, I am an idiot when it comes to the military but that is part of the reason I wanted to read this book—to learn something.

The book I am working on now takes place during the same era but most of my characters are not soldiers, most. I do have two who are soldiers and one of them is my primary characters love interest so I thought it would be a good idea to know what he would be facing as a soldier.

The plot tells the whole story of certain offensives of the war, first in Africa and then in Sicily. We see the whole story but each chapter is told through different eyes. This allows us to see what the Germans are thinking at the same time as we see Eisenhower’s point-of-view about the same event. Or Eisenhower’s versus that of an infantry man who becomes a German POW.

And the best part is: these are real people. The author tells us all about them in both the forwards and afterwards. They once existed and maybe left a diary that Jeff Shaara read. Then he made him and his story real for his readers. I love that.

I think I am going to try to move out of this time period for my next review just for variety sake but I am looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy sometime in the future. This book was good even if it was different from what I usually read.

Contains: war violence, language

A Mortal Terror

Published June 22, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

a mortal terror cover

Review of A Mortal Terror by James R. Benn

Overview from www.bn.com: In his sixth investigation, Lieutenant Billy Boyle finds himself in pursuit of a serial killer with a particularly frightening agenda.

1943: Billy Boyle is sent to Caserta, Italy, to investigate the murders of two American officers stationed there. The MOs are completely different, and it seems like the officers had no connection to each other, but one frightening fact links the murders: each body was discovered with a single playing card: the Lieutenant, the ten of hearts; the Captain, the jack of hearts. The message seems to be clear—if the murderer isn’t apprehended, the higher ranks will be next. As the invasion at Anzio begins, Billy needs to keep a cool head amidst fear and terror as the killer calculates his next moves.

My Review:

I discovered this book by searching through my county library’s catalogues for fiction stories that take place during World War II and I discovered a gem. A Mortal Terror is not only a tale of the Second World War but it is also a murder mystery so I loved it both as a Mystery and as Historical Fiction.

Billy Boyle is a detective working for Eisenhower during the war. He is a member of the Armed Forces (currently ranking as a lieutenant) but Ike apparently calls on him to solve crime as well. The army believes him to be an experienced investigator due to the time he spent on the Boston PD though he actually spent little time there as a detective. He is not letting that cat out of the bag however as his current job allows him a few perks now and then from “Uncle Ike” that he’d rather not do without.

He might be up a creek without a paddle however when he is ordered to investigate the murder of two officers stationed in Italy. Though they both seemed well-liked by the men under them someone apparently thinks that the Germans have been remiss in their duties to exterminate these two Americans. Billy thinks that someone might be an American G.I. who has a grudge against officers.

“The Red Heart Killer” seems to be going up the ranks leaving a playing card as his calling card with each corpse that he takes out because he doesn’t stop at two. He means to go all the way up to a general and that’s got the brass terrified.

Billy must find out who he is and stop him before he gets that high while protecting his little brother from the same killer who maybe using Billy’s brother Danny against him. The question is, if he has to choose between the general and Danny, who will he pick?

In case you’re still wondering, I really liked this story. It kept me guessing all the way to the end and with the war as a backdrop there was certainly no shortage of action. It was interesting how even in the midst of war; our killer has time to murder on the battlefield while fighting off the German invaders. It seems a mere war isn’t stimulating enough for this “psychopath.”

The only negatives I could site were that in some parts of the story the foul language was a bit strong but not as bad as what I have seen in other books. Of course there is violence: both from the war as well as the murders but it was not as graphic as it could have been.

I liked it about as much as I liked the last Historical Mystery and I hope to read more of both series. I thought it was also interesting to see how the term “shell shock” from World War I evolved into the term “combat fatigue” in this war. Both are now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I think. It makes me wonder what they called it during Vietnam.

Finally I will close with a quote from the book that I liked a lot. This is at the close of a chapter where Danny is nearly killed when the Germans decide to launch a surprise attack. (By the way, this author is especially good at ending the chapters of the book in interesting ways.) To understand it I must first tell you that the character Charlie Colorado is a Native American whose tribe believes in a god named Usen and that is who Billy is referring to here.

“’Danny?’ I spoke his name but looked to Kaz.

‘He’s not hurt, Billy. It is Malcomb, the other ASTP boy. He ran.’ Kaz pointed to a lifeless body twenty yards out, clothing, skin, blood, and bone shredded by the shrapnel-laced blast.

‘I tried to stop him,’ Danny said. ‘I tried.’

‘You would have been killed too,’ I said. ‘He panicked. You were smart to stay put.’

‘I didn’t. Charlie grabbed me and held me down,’ Danny said, his voice shaky as he glanced toward Charlie Colorado, sitting on the edge of the trench. A big guy, bronzed skinned, and quiet.

‘Usen,’ I said.

‘I am not the Giver of Life,’ Charlie said. I begged to differ.” P.193-194

Contains: some foul language, violence, references to prostitution

Test of Wills

Published June 1, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

a test of wills cover

Review of Test of Wills by Charles Todd

Overview from www.bn.com: Don’t miss the first book in the critically acclaimed Inspector Ian Rutledge series

It’s 1919, and the “War to End All Wars” has been won. But there is no peace for Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge, recently returned from the battlefields of France shell-shocked and tormented by the ever-present voice of the young Scot he had executed for refusing an order. Escaping into his work to save his sanity, Rutledge investigates the murder of a popular colonel in Warwickshire and his alleged killer, a decorated war hero and close friend of the Prince of Wales.

The case is a political minefield, and its resolution could mean the end of Rutledge’s career. Win or lose, the cost may be more than the damaged investigator can bear. For the one witness who can break the case open is, like Rutledge, a war-ravaged victim . . . and his grim, shattered fate could well prove to be the haunted investigator’s own.

My Review:

I now remember looking forward to reading this book after downloading it one day for Free Friday. Somewhere along the line however I must have forgotten it. When I found it again in my library after I’d finished reading my last book, I was real excited and couldn’t wait to get started. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.

This one combines two of my favorite genres: Historical Fiction and Mystery. The time is 1919. World War I or the Great War has just ended and the former combatants are returning home. Among them is our dear Inspector Ian Rutledge.

Rutledge is home and safe for now. Or is he? He may be safe from the bombs, the diseases and the trenches but he is not safe from the voice that is in his head. The doctors are aware of it yet they have pronounced him fit for duty, but is he?

So far he has done fine reading the paper and lamenting the state of post war England but along comes a real case in a town near Warwickshire and he begins to wonder what he’s got himself in for. A war hero has died and the prime suspect is another war hero who is in tight with the royal family. Ian must either find another suspect, or find some airtight evidence that he can use to justify an arrest of Captain Mark Wilton.

The trouble is that Rutledge can’t get to the heart of the matter and the voice in his head is not the biggest distraction. It seems that our victim Colonel Harris had no enemies. He is practically a model citizen who no one would want to murder….and yet someone did.

In fact, the victim was not only murdered but in a somewhat gruesome way as his head was shot clean off by a shotgun. Someone clearly had issues with the Colonel thought no one wants to admit it.

All evidence seems to point to Wilton who persistently professes his innocence yet admits that he will not tell the inspector everything he wants to know. Some issues are personal, he says, and he will not budge even when the cards are stacked against.

Ian is all set to arrest him when something gnaws at him. He knows that something is not right. By the time he realizes what it is though, he is almost too late to prevent another murder.

Okay, here’s the skinny on this one. I liked it a lot. I would say I loved it if it weren’t for the fact that the ending seemed to come out of nowhere. I prefer a story where all the facts are there but you could still miss the conclusion if you look at them from the wrong perspective.

I like the characters of Ian Rutledge and Hamish who is the voice in his head. I like seeing the World War I Era perspective on mental issues and how it compares with today. What is PTSD today was called “shell shock” back then and apparently could also include hearing voices in your head (which I thought was schizophrenia).

I also find it interesting that as hard as it sometimes is to deal with Hamish, Rutledge prefers dealing with him than with some of his other demons. His old flame Jean is one of them. He’d prefer listening to Hamish than thinking about Jean any day of the week though Hamish often belittles him.

This is the beginning of a series so I am anxious to read the next one. Who knows when or if my budget will allow that though? Someone let me know if the next one goes on sale at www.bn.com or maybe I’ll try the library. In the meantime, check it out and let me know if you agree.

Contains: some violence