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Book Review 31: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Maria Pessl

27 May

I’m going to be gushing a lot in some of my upcoming posts. I’ve been on a serious roll with reading books I love, probably because I did a ton of research on what to read so I could stop reading crap and start reading books I’m obsessed with, rather than lukewarm towards.

Anyway, Maria Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics goes on the gush list. Blue van Meer is the protagonist, who has spent her life traveling from city to city with her professor father, who was constantly guest lecturing at some rural university or another. And during her senior year, she finds herself at the St. Galloway school in North Carolina. And while she finally finds a place to belong, she finds herself entangled in the odd, complicated and slightly terrifying world of a teacher and the teacher’s favorite students.

This book expertly straddled two genres.  There was a significant amount of plot and character development dedicated to Blue, and her friends, as they navigate the awkward world of high school under the tutelage of a slightly unhinged, but absolutely magnetic, teacher. And this book was also a traditional thriller, with Blue introducing the mystery at the beginning, and the psychological underpinnings of the mystery unraveled slowly over the course of the book.

This book reminded me a lot of The Secret History, but I think I prefer Special Topics. The end of this book throws a curve ball at you that I, for one, was not expecting. Continue reading

Review 24: Serena by Ron Rash

14 Apr

The film based on Serena is going to be Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s follow up to their Oscar nominated/winning The Silver Linings Playbook, and I wanted to check it out mostly for those reasons. I follow a lot of Hollywood trade news via blogs, and when they were casting for Serena, there was a lot of buzz about how this movie provides a meaty, unique part for actresses that they rarely seen. The idea of a strong, female character was enough for me to check it out of the local library.

And the book certainly lives up to the strong, female character buzz.  Serena is beyond your typical strong female, she’s terrifying. She’s ruthless, she’s single minded in her ambition and she will stop at nothing. She feels conniving, and manipulative, and immoral, but you can’t help but read in awe as she maneuvers her way through the male dominated logging company towards her goals. And you can’t help but feel unsettled at the disturbing means she uses to get there.

This should not be a boring book. There’s political strategy, action in the form of hunting, logging and a fairly suspenseful chase at the end. There are trained eagles, snakebites, and a number of fairly creative, grisly murders that made my stomach turn. And yet, I was kind of bored.

There was something about the prose that took the edge out of the events, took the suspsense out of the book, and so I wouldn’t fully recommend this to anyone. In the notes after the book, the author answered some questions and mentioned he wanted the period and the landscape to be the focus of the story, which makes his prose make more sense. I just like my books a bit more exciting, as a general rule.

 

 

Book Review #62: Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye

21 Sep

This is the best mystery I’ve read this year. Set in New York City in 1845, Timothy Wilde and his unpredictable but highly political brother Val find themselves among the first police officers in NYC. One of the last major cities to form and fund a police force, the cities residents aren’t necessarily fond of the new “copper stars.”

What is the role of the police in our society? Something I’ve always taken for granted is that cops do two things: they prevent crime, and they solve crimes after they happen. In this historical fiction novel, in the early days of the police force, they had to spend their extremely limited resources on preventing crime. Protagonist Timothy Wilde proves himself far more adept at solving crimes.

During his first patrol, Timothy encounters a young girl covered in blood, and takes her home to secure her safety. This little girl, Bird, was a child prostitute working in the city who leads Timothy to a graveyard filled with the bodies of 19 children, almost surely other child prostitutes, with giant crosses cut in their midsection. Timothy finds himself trying to untangle the mystery, making enemies of politically powerful madams, his own brother, and trying to navigate the complicated religious politics (Catholic v. Protestant) of the time.  Continue reading

Book Review #48: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

30 Aug

The Strand is one of my favorite places in NYC. I went there on a Friday night and bought three books at $5 a piece. I grabbed this historical murder mystery off the shelf because it took place in NYC and also was set during the development of criminal profiling.

Shadow of Gotham‘s lead detective is Simon Ziele, who is working in a small upstate New York town while getting over the tragic death of his fiance. When Sarah Wingate, a female doctorate student in mathematics, is found brutally murdered in her wealthy aunt’s home,Ziele is dragged back to New York to solve her murder.

Criminal profiling is a major part of this book. Ziele works with Alistair Sinclair, who has been conducting research on criminals, and criminal rehabilitation, to track down one of Sinclair’s former research subjects suspected of murdering Wingate. The validity of the research, the special favors Sinclair calls in to make his research possible, and Sinclair’s odd assortment of staffers are almost more interesting than the murder itself.  Continue reading

Book Review #44: The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison

29 Aug

This summer, I sublet an apartment in NYC from two professors. They had a wall to wall library filled with books on political science and education, with just one shelf of fiction. I had intended to tear through the shelf, but the only book I actually ended up reading from their small fiction selection was Alice Mattison’s The Book Borrower.

This book details the friendship between two women, from beginning to end. The book is told primarily in fragments of memory of the two women, Deborah and Toby. You see them meet, become fast friends, grow their families, attempt to grow their personal and professional lives, and slowly outgrow each other.  There’s intense jealousy in the friendship, as both women are teachers trying to make their way in a struggling market. There’s also jealousy over their marriages, their past times, and the new friends they make along the way.

This book shows the long, slow decline of friendships as we age. But what’s most striking is how trivial the things that chip away at friendship are. A missed meeting. Repeatedly being late. Jealousy over a promotion, or lack thereof. Just like with siblings, it’s almost impossible for friends not to compare their lives to each other, keeping a long running score of wins and losses.  Sometimes, it’s not until something dramatic happens that people realize how petty they’ve been. But it’s frequently too late.

Book Review #36: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

27 May

I’ve been tabling this review because I truly loved this book, and I’m not sure how to review it in a way that does it justice.  The Dovekeepers is a work of historical fiction that tells the tale of the Jewish resistance during the Roman’s siege of Masada in the first century.  900 Jewish men and women held out against the Romans for months, and ultimately, 2 women and 5 children survived.  Hoffman used meticulous research to weave a mystical tale of desire, family and friendship that gives a voice to the women who participated in the siege.

The book is told in four pieces.  Yael is the lion, a young girl who’s mother died in child birth who flees her home city with her assassin father and her brother’s best friend. Her illicit romance, her betrayal of her confidant, and her seeemingly magical ability to attract both humans and animals with her silence is oddly compelling.  Revka, the baker’s wife, serves partially to set up the romance of the book but also as proof of a mother’s capacity for vengeance.  Aziza is a warrior, disguising herself as a boy to defend her people and falling in love with a man everyone else thought was broken. Shirah is a “witch” of sorts, who uses her powers for good – like aiding women giving birth to illegitimate children – and her own ends – like protecting her children or ruining her lover’s wive’s life. Continue reading

Book Review #32: The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

8 May

*Although this book has now been released, I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy from the author.

Adriana Trigiani’s warm and inviting stories are about Italians living in or immigrating to America, and their families, lovers and friends. The Shoemaker’s Wife is the love story of Ciro and Enza, who meet as children in their small mountain Italian town and both immigrate to America – Ciro for punishment, Enza to support her family. Over the years, as Enza works her way up the seamstress ladder to become the main seamstress for a Metropolitan Opera star, and Ciro firmly establishes himself as an entrepreneurial shoemaker, they occasionally bump into each other, rekindling their childhood feelings for each other.

Enza was my favorite part of this novel.  She’s one of the truly strong, brave, hardworking female characters Trigiani is known for.  She worships her family, moving abroad to support them and earning enough money over time to build them a house.  She wants something for herself, something more than marriage, and along with her Irish best friend, she works tirelessly to get it. She’s kind, sensitive and wonderfully creative – I loved the chapters about her and her friend Laura working as seamstresses at the Met. It was both exciting, and grueling, to read about.

If you’re looking for a will-they-or-won’t-they love story rich in historical details, I highly recommend The Shoemaker’s Wife.  However, there were a few things I didn’t enjoy (potential spoilers after the jump). Continue reading

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