Tag Archives: historical fiction

‘The Seven Sisters’ by Lucinda Riley

This sweeping and evocative series follows six adopted sisters who, upon the death of their beloved eccentric father, are given mysterious clues about their origins. Their individual journeys take them to various parts of the world where they discover their roots but are also given wings. This first instalment introduces the series as well as features the first sister Maia on her journey to her birthplace in Brazil. The names of the seven sisters are derived from the star constellation of the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. There is also some Greek mythology thrown in and anagrams galore, like the name of the father is Pa Salt (Atlas). The castle where Pa Salt and the seven sisters reside is a picturesque and remote castle on the shores of Lake Geneva.

There is not a bit of this novel that is not engaging, mysterious, and romantic, but at the same time grounded and satisfying. It is a work of fiction wrapped around real historical figures. In the case of Maia’s story, the historical aspect is about the construction of the massive Christ the Redeemer statue which gazes over the city of Rio de Janeiro from the top of  Corcovado Mountain. The architect and engineer of this amazing piece of art was Heitor da Silva Costa and the sculptor was Paul Landowski. The author seamlessly weaves these historical characters into the novel.

I am looking forward to carrying on with this series. Here is a list of the next instalments so far. This Irish author says she will take each sister in turn, and then the mystery of Pa Salt and the seventh unfound sister will be revealed in the final book.
1  The Seven Sisters
2 The Storm Sister
3 The Shadow Sister
4 The Pearl Sister
5 The Moon Sister

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

The Secret RiverstarstarstarstarThe librarian where we meet for book club, described this as a very good read when she handed us our latest assignment and called it “a proper story.”

I did thoroughly enjoy this slice of Australian history because it didn’t try to be too epic nor did the author take sides in the conflict–she lets the reader decide and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. Though full of great literary themes, the story is focused primarily on one couple and their young children as they try to survive in a harsh and foreign land. This makes it simply readable as a story, but at the same time the reader cannot help but examine the choices that this couple make.

William Thornhill and his wife Sal travel to Australia from London on one of the early convict ships. Will is not a bad man, driven by impoverishment to make unsavoury choices. He escapes the gallows but ends up in another sort of prison and engages in another type of theft. Sal dreams of returning to London one day, but William falls in love with the land on the Hawkesbury River and this becomes his fatal flaw. It is a wild and lonely place except for the indigenous people who are living there already, but who are discounted as savages by those settling and ‘civilizing’ New South Wales. A settler’s dream becomes an Australian nightmare. It is a painful history familiar from so many colonial stories. Grenville does a beautiful job of quietly crafting the Aborigines’ voice and representing their loss.

Every one of the settlers in the book has chosen a different way of interaction with the indigenous people. Miscommunication and misunderstanding abound, but for some, a quiet “give and take” is what works best. In that regard it reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible, a novel offering several different approaches to missionary work in Africa embodied by various characters. Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather was a convict himself, sent from London to Australia in 1806. It was the desire to understand the history of her ancestors that motivated her to write these books.

The Secret River is part of a three book ‘Colonial Trilogy’.  The Lieutenant  and Sarah Thornhill being the other two. The Lieutenant was written after but is set before The Secret River and is an exploration of the first contacts between whites and blacks before the violence took over and when conversation was still possible. Sarah Thornhill is a loose sequel to the other two, taking up the story in a third generation that must deal with what history has created. I definitely will read the other two in the trilogy at some point. Grenville gives a masterful touch to a troubled tale–a proper story indeed. I know we will be having a great discussion at book club this month.  The Secret River has been adapted for stage and screen.

‘A Northern Light’ by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern LightstarstarstarstarWinner of the Carnegie Medal, in the UK this book is titled ‘A Gathering Light’. Publishers in UK always give books a different cover (which I love to compare with the US cover) and sometimes, as in this case, even a different title. Same book in every other regard.

‘A Northern Light’ is based on a true story from the Adirondack Mountains where a body of a young woman was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in 1906. The boat she’d been in with her male companion was capsized so it appeared to be an accident, but the other body was never found. The mystery of that night ended up being one of the most sensational murder trials in New York’s history.

Donnelly’s fictional account features Mattie, a young girl working at the tourist hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake. She is given a package of letters by a young woman guest who is obviously distraught. The instructions are to burn the letters, but Mattie never gets a chance until the body of the woman is recovered from the lake. What do those letters contain? Should she be true to the woman’s instructions now or are there clues in the letters that might explain what happened?

There is much more in the story than the murder mystery on the lake. Mattie is growing up in hard times on the farm and is torn between her desire to go to college and her sense of responsibility to stay home and help the family, or even have one of her own. Though not as epic, I found the book similar to The Invention of Wings in style and tone. It’s an engaging and well written novel that was a pleasure to read.

Though classified as a Young Adult novel, Donnelly handles many very adult topics deftly and creatively and is a book that anyone would enjoy. It’s definitely one of those YA cross-over gems. I do love finding those!

Jennifer Donnelly Website

‘My Dear, I wanted to tell you’ by Louisa Young

My Dear, I wanted to tell youstarstarstarThis work of historical fiction is a highly readable, earthy, unique love story set in the midst of the First World War. It has a very “real” feel to it and I realized halfway through that much of the novel is true! The characters are well developed and memorable. There is some fascinating medical stuff in it that was new to me. I struggle with how much to reveal about the book, because much of the pleasure of reading it is in discovering how the story unfolds. So I won’t say much, except that parts of it may not be for the feint of heart.

Louisa Young has not included much about the battle details of the war itself, but rather has focussed on how people coped personally. She deals with relationships and what it was like when your loved ones went “over there”. And the myriad of reasons why they went. So many personal battles were fought in the living rooms and towns where no shrapnel flew, and the medical people who were ministering to the dead and dying were as affected as the soldiers in uniform. Young captures the longings and loss of war so well, and how a generation could never be the same again.

Included here are two links about medical advancements that you will find fascinating to read after you have finished the book if you don’t want any spoilers.

BBC iWonder
Guardian Article

‘Frog Music’ by Emma Donoghue

Frog MusicstarstarstarstarThis original tale just leaps off the page. It is based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a frog catcher in San Francisco during a rare heat wave in 1876. A smallpox epidemic hits at the same time. It is an unusual but compelling piece of historical fiction, impeccably researched and entertainingly told.

Jenny Bonnet literally bumps into Blanche on the street while riding her high wheeler bicycle one day, and the encounter results in a unique friendship between the two women. Blanche is an exotic dancer, and works in a brothel. Her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest squander her earnings and form an odd ‘menage a trois’, until Jenny arrives on the scene and changes all of their lives forever. It is no spoiler to say that Jenny is shot in a grimy bar on the outskirts of town, because it happens on the third page.

Donoghue wittily captures the raucous atmosphere of this seedy, sticky and unhygienic world of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the same panache and precision as she captured the claustrophobia in a small shed in Room. As an author she doesn’t believe in pages and pages of description, so the characters’ lives tell the story which keeps it moving. The dance tunes are woven seamlessly into the novel and further notes on them are given at the back. There is a glossary of French phrases given as well.

‘Frog Music’ is fiction but is completely based on true events. Only a few minor characters were invented. There are raw and crude scenes which may be a bit much for some, but are part of the story and the author handles them well. The appalling conditions that some women and children had to endure was admittedly hard to read, but the spirited determination of Blanche and Jenny is uplifting.

The book is sort of like “French bohemian meets the Wild West” – a quirky time and place which I enjoyed learning about, all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery! C’est si bon!

‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

The OrendastarstarstarstarstarJoseph Boyden has written an honest and epic historical snapshot of Canada in its infancy. Set in Southern Ontario in the 1600’s, it follows the lives of three characters so rich and deeply portrayed I believe they will each stay with me for a very long time. And because three narrators speak of the same events from different perspectives, it gives the story an unforgettable three dimensional depth. It is impressive how simply and lyrically Boyden captures so many turbulent and important themes in one novel.

Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with special gifts, is kidnapped and adopted by Bird, a Huron elder and warrior. He seeks to fill the gap left by the wife and daughter he has lost, but Snow Falls’ fierce independence will test that plan. The third narrator is Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who has dedicated his life to learning and understanding Huron ways so that he can live amongst them and share his faith.

Some of the brutality of war and torture may be disturbing to some, but are handled by Boyden only because he has to in order to be true to the story. He claimed in an interview with Shelagh Rogers of CBC’s The Next Chapter (October 28, 2013 podcast) that these sections were as hard to write as they are to read. But I hope that does not put you off of the novel because you will miss a great deal of beauty as well. I commend Boyden for not shying away from a difficult task and giving us a human story where worlds and world views inevitably collide. The violence in the novel is personal but not gratuitous and if anything, weirdly gentle. Being indigenous to the culture himself, ‘The Orenda’ flows out of Joseph Boyden in a way that brings history alive and makes it jump off the page. An ‘orenda’ is a life force much like a human soul, but inhabits more widely. Animals and trees have an orenda, Lake Ontario has an orenda. As Rogers said in her interview, in this book, Boyden has given history an orenda.

This very week, ‘The Orenda’ is one of the books battling to be dubbed a ‘Great Canadian Novel’ in Canada Reads 2014. Each year Canadian celebrities choose Canadian novels and argue for their choice until one comes out on top. Arbitrary as it may sound (how can one novel be all things to all Canadians), I do commend Canadians for hosting a spirited literary debate in the dead of winter to create some warmth and intrigue! This time I’ve actually read two of the books in the running, the other one being Annabel by Kathleen Winter which was also excellent.

‘The Orenda’ is part of a loose trilogy. It was preceded by Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but chronologically comes first.

‘Code Name Verity’ by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VeritystarstarstarstarA young adult historical novel, this is a harrowing adventure story set in WW 2. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The story follows two strong young women from England to the occupied territory in France. Very rarely, in all the books I have read about the second world war, have I read about the fighting that women did. In this case a female pilot and a spy. If you loved  The Book Thief you’ll like this one as well. The harsh realities of the choices that sometimes need to be made during war time are well described. I loved the scenes of Maddie flying and clever Queenie changing identities so much that’s it’s a wonder she even knew who she was at any given moment! But somehow they both persevere against the odds and considering their very different backgrounds, forge a special friendship that would never have happened if it weren’t for the war.

It’s best I say as little as possible about the plot so that you can experience it better in the reading. The book is written in two parts. The first is narrated by Verity, the second by Kittyhawk. Even though the first half is beautifully written  it seemed a bit slow going. However, I knew the reviews were stellar and the second half made me realize what all the fuss was about. The novel picks up in the middle and literally flies to the finish. It’s amazing how the author brought so many things together in the end.

The author is a pilot herself and just published a new book this year called Rose Under Fire.