Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This as in no way influenced my opinion.

I am not sure why it has been so difficult for me to write this review, because I truly loved “The Boston Girl”. My local library has a program called My Librarian in which you can fill out a short survey on your reading history and receive either by call, personal visit, or email a personalized list of book suggestions. I linked my blog and Goodreads and listed Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” as one of my favorite historical fiction titles. Alice, the librarian I had chosen, suggested that I check out Diamant’s latest, “The Boston Girl” on NetGalley. I am glad she did. While I don’t think it stands up to magical epic quality of “The Red Tent” (if you enjoy historical fiction and have not read it, I highly recommend it), “The Boston Girl” has a warm personal feeling to it that kept me turning pages until I realized I was close to the end, and felt a sense of loss.

That personal feeling comes from Diamant’s choice in narrative voice. She cleverly places you in the position of a beloved and successful granddaughter who has just asked her grandmother to tell her how she became the woman she is for a school project. The narrator speaks to you with a voice filled with awe for the opportunities available to modern women as well as love and respect for her granddaughter. This is a coming of age story told from the point of view of an old woman who has had time to reflect on what truly brought her to womanhood. It is a deeply personal tale of the struggles of being a first generation American girl at the height of the suffragist movement. The themes of depression, love, loss, guilt, familial conflict, and hope are woven in, creating the tapestry of a true woman. Strong female friendships come and go, as they do in life, and Diamant tells it all in such a way that I almost felt like I could click on my browser and look up the protagonist’s biography.

Characters are only a part of the picture in any good novel. To me, they are the most important part, and I can ignore some lazy world building if I need to. With “The Boston Girl” I did not have to. The time period is painstakingly researched. Diamant did not go overboard on period slang, or descriptions of period pieces. Instead she chose to leave everything as natural and authentic as possible. I never once felt that the author was trying to make me believe the story took place in the 20s, and so I didn’t have to contend with accidental anachronisms.

Overall, a wonderful story, and one I would recommend, as I do with “The Red Tent” to anyone who would like to read a story about strong women, and strong female friendships.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant Cover

Book Review: The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

I had the honor of attending the release party for “The Cure for Dreaming” at Powell’s a few weeks ago. You can read about it here. When I saw this book cropping up on so many of the blogs I follow, I knew I had to look deeper into it. As I read more, I realized that this book was pretty much written for me. Women’s rights? Check! Victorian Era? Got it! The setting is in Portland, it involves Gothic elements, and the supernatural crops up? Check, check, aaaand check! There is also no denying that it has a beautiful cover. It is much prettier in person with a semi-metallic tone to it. There was no doubt in my mind that I would own this book. It was great to meet Cat Winters and have it signed. This was the first of her writing I have read, and it was wonderful introduction.

The most appealing aspect is the message– Even if you feel like you have no voice, you can still make a stand. You can make a difference. You are allowed to follow your dreams and they cannot be taken from you. What a wonderful message to send to our young people who can feel marginalized by the flood of dissenting voices and differing opinions that saturate the media. Like the 1900s where this is set, we are in the midst of rapid social, economic, and technological change and there are vocal extremists on all sides of the equation. “The Cure for Dreaming” is a story where teenagers can easily relate to the feelings and emotions of Olivia and her desire to speak out and bring forth social change without a contemporary setting. The themes of social equality, bullying, and emotional abuse are also contained between the covers, making the cure for dreaming quite a deep story for its relatively short length.

What sets “The Cure for Dreaming” apart from other historical novels with similar themes is the incorporation of paranormal elements as well as imagery from Dracula. I enjoy two types of vampires. The first are the sort of wolf-like predators found in Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy”. Noble, long lived, yet unable to escape from the predatory instincts within them. The second, and most beloved, are Bram Stoker vampires. Use elements and imagery from Dracula, or talk about Vlad Tepas and Erzebet Bathory and I am hooked. Olivia’s visions after hypnosis are laced with imagery from her favorite novel, Dracula. These elements enhance the Gothic feel of the novel and gives readers a slightly different take on a historical novel. If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen, there are pieces here you will love. My only real complaint is that sometimes the language felt a bit anachronistic, but this is definitely coming from someone who really enjoys Victorian literature and Steampunk.

I recommend this to a wide audience. There are strong male and female characters. The themes will appeal to many young adults, and older adults. If you are a fan of creepy novels, or paranormal, I definitely suggest you pick this one up.

If you have read it, what did you think?

the cure for dreaming by cat winters

Book Review: The Red Magician by Lisa Stein

I must admit to having read more Holocaust fiction than can be considered healthy. I have a morbid fascination with frightening level of darkness that human beings can allow themselves to participate in. Nearly every major nation involved in WWII completed atrocities that today would be considered highly unethical. They did it for science. They did it out of fear. They did it because everyone who was not there ally had become “the other” and therefore, less than human. The psychology of it is both incredibly scary, and extremely interesting. When I read a Holocaust novel, or any WWII novel, I am looking for an exploration of the elements that could turn normal, loving, people into monsters. I am looking to understand the feelings of the victims. I am looking for a window into one of humanity’s most terrifying times. Stories like Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and Tatiana de Rosnay’s “Sarah’s Key” are beautiful and heart wrenching examples of amazing Holocaust fiction. You understand the characters, and through them, you understand the true effects of the Holocaust. You understand the nightmare the characters lived. Next to such deep, emotional, and character driven stories Lisa Stein’s “The Red Magician” pales in comparison.

I do not want to say “The Red Magician” was bad. It wasn’t. The National Book Award sticker affixed to the cover is a testament to its technical flawlessness and uniqueness. The magical realism aspects were a fascinating glimpse into Jewish mysticism. Thematically, the story is rich. The characters embodied the belief that many Jewish communities held that surely the German government was not exterminating the entire Jewish population of Eastern Europe. It was unthinkable in the modern age. And, if they were, other countries would certainly step up and stop them before their reach extended too far beyond their borders. Many communities believed everything would be fine, despite the warnings they received. It also digs deeply into the desire to keep fighting, and survivor’s guilt.

Unfortunately, that is as deep as things got. The characters were incredibly underdeveloped. Strong relationships were created with little build up. A few pages of conversation, and suddenly the main character is in love. A handful of interactions, and another character is willing to take responsibility for another’s life. A page or two of confrontation, and life long enemies are created. I couldn’t convince myself that these relationships were real, or important, and therefore could not connect to the characters.

I remember reading “Bartleby the Scrivener” in high school. At a specific point in Melville’s famous story Bartleby apparently decides that he will no longer do anything. He would “prefer not to” review a document in his office. He would “prefer not to” leave the office. He would “prefer not to” defend himself in a court of law. He would “prefer not to” do anything at all, even eat. To this day, remembering the story fills me with a rage I cannot explain. It bothers me that Bartleby does not care if he lives or dies. He does not value his life, and no one stirs him to care. It bothers me, which is probably more telling of my mental state than anything else. There is a point in “The Red Magician” where the protagonist gives up as well, and I felt that frustration and rage again as her character refused to listen to those around her, including the person she was supposed to have loved. Perhaps if I felt more connected to her as a character I would understand how the horrors she witnessed throughout the Holocaust would have brought her to a passive point where she neither sought death, nor continued to live, but I could not. I almost gave up reading at that point, but persevered.

“The Red Magician” is definitely a different view of the holocaust, and it stirred me emotionally, though not in the way I am accustomed to stories from this time period moving me. I would recommend it to fans of magical realism and fans of WWII historical fiction. I believe, in this case, my lack of enjoyment was mostly emotionally and not intellectually driven. This story is a unique view that I think would be a great way to spark a conversation among middle grade and young adult readers while keeping them interested with a magical and almost fantastical setting.

If you have read it, what did you think?

redmagician

Book Review: Nest by Nancy Ehrlich

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

This isn’t a book review, per say, as I was not able to finish the story, but I could not think of a better category to place my commentary. Why would I post about a book I did not finish? Because I think it has the makings of a classic and I want as many people to know about it as I can. It might sound strange, but there is an explanation. Tagging a book as “Did Not Finish”, especially an advanced reader copy, tends to have a negative connotation, and in nearly all cases that is true. In this case, perhaps instead of saying “Did Not Finish,” I should say “This was not the season for this book.” Nancy Ehrlich has written a beautiful and emotional middle grade novel that deals with the theme of coming of age in the shadow of illness and depression. It is so powerfully emotional that I could not finish, because as I read, I began to draw parallels between the protagonist, Chirp’s, story, and my own.

When I was 12 going on 13 the grandparents who raised me took my sister and I to the Northern California coast just a few weeks before summer’s end. I would be entering the 7th grade. Middle school. It seemed so exciting back then. It was morning when my grandmother fell ill. We were in a hotel room only a short walk away from Pismo Beach, a beautiful and rocky shore with sand crabs that pinched when you unknowingly sat on their nests. The past few days had been wonderful, building sand castles, swimming the day away, watching as my grandmother’s teacup poodle, Dolly, chased the receding waves and then ran away when they inevitably came back. Sure, we got kicked out of our first hotel because Dolly was technically not welcome, but that was not enough to ruin our day. We found a room where she was, and continued on our merry little way. We were due to go home in another day, but instead my grandmother woke up screaming and dry heaving into the ice bucket.

It happened quickly. The memory is just flashes. The sounds of sirens and waves mixing. Stuffy hotel room. Cool ocean breezes that smelled of seaweed and sand. The heat of the summer sun on the concrete outside the emergency room. Red lights flashing. Patients in and out. Feet wrapped in stiff white sheets. My sister and I wondering if everything would be all right– hungry, tired, and afraid to ask for anything for ourselves. Then came the diagnosis; a burst aneurysm. Prognosis? Not good.

I would lose my grandmother nearly six months later. That day was the last day we would see her eyes and hear her voice. She had an operation. It was successful in that they repaired the burst blood vessel, but the bleeding had already done its damage. On my first day of middle school, she was in a hospital an hour and a half from my home, stuck in a coma she would never come out of. I started out awkward, sad, and somewhat broken. But there was joy, too.

“Nest” captures the fear, joy, and awkwardness of 12 year old Chirp whose summer ends much like mine did. Erhlich captures the fear and sadness so well. She captures the beauty of every day life and the resilience of children who must go on with their life, despite everything they know falling down around them. She understands how those in pain reach out to other aching souls for comfort, friendship, and camaraderie. I could sympathize so well that my heart was heavy while reading, and I needed to put the book down.

I will one day return to “Nest”. Maybe when my son is older and he starts to learn the sad truth that illness exists and that bad things happen to good people. Perhaps when he is 12-years-old, all arms and legs, and squeaky voice. When he needs to know that no matter what, life goes on, and it is beautiful. I know it is odd to recommend a book you have not finished. Almost as odd as it is to put down a book you find so well written because you simply can’t finish, but I truly feel that “Nest” should be in every middle school and high school library. Go ahead and give it a try. I think it is worth it.

nest_esther_ehrlich

Book Review: The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

I received a copy of this novel for free in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion.

Murder, political intrigue, science, mathematics, airships, and time machines. “The Time Roads” by Beth Bernobich is a smorgasbord of delicious steampunk and mystery elements. When I switched on my Galley of “The Time Roads”, I was not expecting a political thriller. Truthfully, I expected yet another steampunk story where the plot and characters are second to the quest to add as many fantastical elements to the world as possible. The mention of mathematics in the summary goaded me into requesting the novel, and I am glad I did. What I found was a mature and nuanced tale set in a believable alternate story.

The story opens and closes in the first person point of view of Aine, queen of Erie, in an alternative history where Ireland, not England, is head of the great western empire at the turn of the century. There is no East India Company here, but there are plots. Aine is not safe from those who wish to take or change her empire, all complicated by the work of mathmeticians and scientists that are striving to conquer time itself. In the beginning, Aine is young and scared. The books starts off feeling like it could belong to the new adult scene, but as the pages turn, the story evolves. The reader grows with Aine. I found myself wrapped up in her story. I wanted to follow her to the end.

As Aine and the other main characters, Siomon and Aidrean, delve into and face the consequences of time travel, we switch into the third person point of view. Each of the four intertwined stories , each with a different character behind the lens felt a bit disjointed at first. The switch between them was disconcerting and confusing. Rather than being put off by it, I was drawn in even more. Time travel is full of, to quote The Doctor, “Wibbley Wobbly Timey Wimey,” stuff. It is enough to make your head spin. The characters were confused by the twists and turns of the Time Roads. They were lost without a map, remembering events that didn’t seem to have happened, and seeing shadows of other timelines. I felt like my confusion mirrored theirs. I was a part of their world, facing it right alongside them.

I can see the separate points of view and stories within the story confusing some readers and putting them off of the story. Not many books attempt to confound the traditional linear structure of a story. It can be trying for those who are unaccustomed to it. The mathematical theorems might also confuse. I was lucky enough to have a math professor who had taught English previously regale us with stories of Pythagoras and other famous mathematicians. That knowledge definitely enhanced my reading experience.

This title is an excellent choice for adult steampunk fans who are looking for something a bit more mature than the usual offerings. I also recommend it for alternate history and murder mystery fans who may not have yet attempted steampunk before. I have not read anything quite like it before, and I think it will appeal to many different readers. Please let me know what you think if you decide to pick this title up!

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

%d bloggers like this: