Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Megan Mayhew Bergman – Almost Famous Women

Almost Famous WomenI have been so well with short story collections recently having just finished Barbara the Slut. Bergman does something very different with her short story collection, but I loved it nonetheless.

While this compilation is a work of fiction, each short story focuses on a real woman from the past and then spins a creative narrative about their lives. The women that Bergman profiles are, as the title suggests, “Almost Famous,” meaning that while they were all quite notable while alive, history has forgotten them. Some of the women featured in these stories I had heard of like Butterfly McQueen, the African American actress famous for her role as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, and many of them had familiar family names; Allegra Byron, Dolly Wilde, and Norma Millay. Many of these women though, I knew nothing about (Joe Carstairs, Hazel Eaton, and Tiny Davis) and found myself completely enthralled by the stories that Bergman told.

Bergman is an amazing storyteller and I found myself lost in her writing. Whit short story collections I normally find that I read one a day, but I completely burned through this collection because I couldn’t get enough. She also did a remarkable amount of research as evidenced by the lengthy appendix to the book and made a real attempt to understand these women’s lives before attempting to create stories about them. One of the things that I liked the most about these stories is that not all of them are told by the characters that they are focused on, but rather are narrated by secondary or outside characters. This narrative style is functional, allowing the author to create profiles of these women without having to be inside their heads, and also compelling as you are drawn to the subjects of the stories as well as the narrators. I loved this collection and can’t praise it highly enough.

Recommended Reading and Listening:

I couldn’t do any better than the appendix that Megan Mayhew Bergman provides everyone with in her book filled with suggestions for further reading.

Helen Bryan – War Brides (2006)

war-brides-by-helen-bryanHelen Bryan’s novel opens in the present day with an elderly woman packing to get on a plane to Europe. Her distination is unknown, but we know that whoever she plans on seeing, she hasn’t seen in over 50 years.

The bulk of Bryan’s novel takes place 50 years earlier during the Second World War and follows the lives of four women, Evangeline who has eloped from New Orleans, Alice a spinster living in the English countryside, Elsie evacuated from London, Tanni who has fled Vienna, and Frances a high spirited society girl sent to live with her Godmother, as how their lives intersect as they all find themselves in Crowmarsh Priors for the war. The novel had a great set up, but fell rather flat and had an unsatisfying conclusion.

I won’t say too much more at risk of spoiling the book, but there is a lot of character development during the first half of the novel which is well done, but Bryan seems unsure of where to go from there. Each woman is introduced on her own and has a compelling backstory; Evangeline is the daughter of a planter in New Orleans and is having an illicit affair with her mulatto cousin, Elsie is a slum rat in London but clever nonetheless, and Tanni find herself married to a family friend studying at Oxford in order to escape Nazi occupied Austria. Once all the women find themselves in Crowmarsh priors, their stories get tiresome. The women’s stories end before the war does, and the epilogue tacked on to the end is sloppy and seems out of place. It feels as though Bryan was rushed in writing this in order to make a deadline or something. I was quite disappointed after what seemed like such a promising start to the story.

Nick Hornby – Funny Girl (2014)

FunnyGirlNick Hornby is right up there as one of my favourite authors. He is sharp, witty, and while I’m not sure if anything equal my love of High Fidelity, Funny Girl, his newest book was pretty great.

The novel focuses on Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from Blackpool who wants nothing more than to be a comedian like Lucille Ball. She leaves her small town striking out for London but finds that she is considered too good looking to be seen as being funny. This is the 1960s and Barbara, who changes her name to Sophie, only gets bit parts in plays and TV shows often as a Ditz. Hornby then introduces a whole cast or characters; BBC writers Bill and Tony, producer Dennis, and leading man Clive. The novel follows the production of Barbara (and) Jim starring Sophie/Barbara and Clive as it becomes one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms and as the plots parallel the lives of the other characters in the story.

I loved everything about this novel, the character of Sophie/Barbara was so likeable, and the other characters were also layered and interesting. 1960s London is an amazing time to set a book like this dealing with. Hornby is sophisticated and funny in his writing as always and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. I can see this being made into a movie so easily, especially as one directed by Richard Curtis, and will be so excited if that does come about.

Recommended Listening:

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episode about Funny Girl 

NPR also has a review and provides and excerpt of the book

Recommended Reading:

The Atlantic’s article about the real feminist impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The AV Club on why I Love Lucy still endures.

 

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (2014)

PayingGuestsWith her novel The Paying Guests, Waters looks at postwar 1920s London, but through a very unique lense. We are first introduced to the Wray family, spinser Frances and her mother who live together alone in a townhouse. Due to the deaths of the men in the family, Frances and her mother are forced to rent out a room in their house to a young couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber. While initially Frances is suspicious of the the couple, she then strikes up a friendship with Lillian which develops into something much more.

Without giving too much away the story is essentially about the blossoming friendship and eventual affair that occurs between Lillian and Frances set against the backdrop of 1920’s London, a time in which class and gender structures were very much in flux. While I very much enjoyed the story as well as Waters’ writing style, so much of this book seemed so very long. There were parts that dragged on forever without ever really coming to a conclusion. Waters’ writing is great, but the editor really should have cut this book down about 100-200 pages. The unnecessary dialogue and inner thoughts detracted from the rest of the book.

As a feminist scholar specializing in female sexuality in Victorian England, Waters certainly knows her subject and sets the scene beautifully. She is not unfamiliar with creating a dramatic story and does so quite well. Even though the book runs a bit long in places, it is still a worthy read and a great piece of historical fiction.

Susanna Kearsley – The Firebird (2013)

FirebirdIt wasn’t until after I finished this book that I realized it is part of a series, and is meant to be read after The Winter Sea. (I have both, but grabbed this one first). I friend of mine however assured me that it didn’t really matter as there is no real plot continuity between the two books.

This book follows Nicola, a young woman with a an extraordinary gift that allows here to see glimpses of the past when holding an object. Working with fine art and antiques, this gift comes in handy. Nicola becomes drawn to an object however, a firebird from Russia, which takes her on a whirlwind tour through the Jacobite Revolt to the Imperial Russian Court in search of the young woman she saw when holding the bird, Anna. The story shifts between present day Nicola, and her traveling companion and similarly gifted romantic interest, Rob, and the 1700s where Anna is living.
I found that this was a good work of historical fiction, dealing with a time period that doesn’t get much attention in novels (The Jacobite Risings), but the writing and story didn’t really do anything for me. I know a lot of people, who this kind of story appeals to will disagree with me, but personally I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I still enjoyed Kearsley’s work and am still planning on reading The Winter Sea, even though I am not dying to do so.

Louisa Locke – Maids of Misfortune (2009)

MaidsofMisfortuneWhen I bought this, I had originally thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of domestic maids living in Victorian San Francisco. Instead I found myself reading a, quite sloppy, murder mystery set in Victorian San Francisco. I am all for historical fiction and murder mysteries, but this was just bad historical fiction.

Personally, I consider subtlety to be a marker of good historical fiction. The reader should know where they are in time and space, but should not need constant reminders. Locke however feels the need to constantly remind her readers that they are in San Francisco in the late 1880s by cramming every single stereotype associated with the Victorian period into her work. I will give you some examples:

Annie (the main character) is a clairvoyant and constantly remarks about how her customers as obsessed with the unknown. (The steryotype that everyone in the Victorian era was obsessed with the spiritual realm)

Annie goes to a dance and wear a dress showing her ankles and is therefore mistaken as a prostitute

Annie makes a male character, Nate, blush when she says the words “legs”

Everyone in San Francisco hates the Chinese expect for Nate and Annie because naturally, as the heroes of the story they cannot be racist or sexist.

The plot of this story was not bad. It is a murder mystery and has enough suspense that I wanted to know what happened. It turned into a bit of a romance however (and a messy one at that), and wading through the info-dump of Victorian clichés was a bit more than I could handle. This book is part of a whole series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest anytime soon.

Ken Follett – Edge of Eternity (2014)

EdgeOfEternitySo mixed regarding how I feel about this book. I liked it, but I liked it because I like the history behind it, not because I think Ken Follett is a good writer.

This is the third book in Follett’s trilogy and for me, after the first one, they kind of went downhill. The first book was great, the characters were somewhat original and the idea of tracing five different families through the First World War was compelling and done well. The second book was OK, but I think its harder to write about the Second World War without falling into the same tired clichés and character types.

I heard a rumour that Follett didn’t even want to write this book, and it really showed. He started off strong telling the story of a young Black lawyer on a Freedom Ride through the Southern United States, and his chapter detailing the events of JFK’s assassination was done really well, as you see how every character stationed in different areas around the world reacts to the news. He should have just ended there, but obviously couldn’t, needing to tie up everyone’s stories with the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.

Following the JFK assassination the book becomes almost unbearable, the dialogue is so banal and so many of the events are just unbelievable. It makes me wonder if Follett himself has ever actually experienced anything! I’ve written before about how I don’t like his female characters as they all come off as very one-dimensional, and this book was no different. The female characters all serve the goals of the men, and none of them have their own interesting storylines.

Despite the fact that I did not love this book, for some reason I still cried during the epilogue when Follett describes the African American family, the family of the Freedom Rider protagonist, sitting around a TV watching was Barak Obama is sworn into office. That’s more about me being a suck though, than Follett’s writing, as overall, the book was not memorable.

Susan Jane Gilman – The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (2014)

IceCreamQueenEvery once and a while a book comes along that catches you off guard with how good it is. This book was like that for me. Unfortunatley, as many others have already stated, the book suffers from “chick-lit cover syndrome,” that is many are unlikely to pick it us since it features a pair of yellow high heels and an ice cream cone.

The book focuses on Lillian Dunkle from her youth as a Jewish immigrant living in a New York tenement up to her life as a successful ice cream magnate. Lillian is run over by a horse as a girl and taken in by an Italian family where she learns to make ice cream. Through will and determination Lillian makes a name for herself and shows herself to be a shrewd, and sometimes merciless businesswoman. This is a classic rags-to-riches story but it focuses on a woman, and the world that she had to survive in to reach the top.

I loved the character of Lillian. Even though she is a crippled at a young age, she’s not a sympathetic character. Nor is she incredibly likeable. She is not described as pretty or kind in any way, and contains none of the traits found in your typical female protagonist. Instead she is clever and smart, knowing her weaknesses which she plays to her advantage. There is something inherent in Lillian however, that you can’t help admire, even if you don’t particularly like her. I especially loved that fact that she married Bert, a good looking, kind hearted man who many see as “way out of her league,” without having to justify it. I was worried that the author was going to do something like make Bert gay, and have Lillian act as his beard, but he genuinely loved his wife and found in her the characteristics that we as readers also fell in love with.

This story is the history of so-many things. It’s the history of the immigrant experience in America, it is the history of the New York’s Lower East Side, it is a history of America itself starting driving through both World Wars, the Depression, Communist witch-hunts, the nuclear families of the fifties, the psychedelic sixties and seventies, and all the trends that accompanied it. It is also a history of ice cream providing interesting pieces of information peppered throughout. I absolutely loved this book, but be warned, reading will make you want to eat ice cream.

Rating 4.5/5

Tara Conklin – The House Girl (2013)

TheHouseGirlI liked this book, although I do have significant qualms with it. It has a great premise and stated out strong. Shifting from the points of view of Lina, an ambitious lawyer hoping to make partner at her prestigious law firm, and Josephine, a Black house girl living on Virginia plantation in the 1840s, Conklin explores how these two women’s stories intersect through the ages. Lina is assigned to find a plaintiff for a slavery reparations case, which leads her to discover the artwork of Lu Ann Bell and her house girl Josephine. Through her connections in the art world and meticulous historical research, Lina soon discovers the truth behind the art of Lu Ann Bell and the fate of Josephine.

The story is compelling but not wholly realistic, especially in representing Lina’s journey to a Virginia archive. In the book Lina experiences something I like to call a “Rosetta Stone” moment, something that all historians would love to experience but rarely do; finding a singular letter that proves everything that Lina always believed to be true. How wonderful it would be if history worked this way but alas, moments like this are rare. Historians have to work hard to make their point, and as they should. Often times we find ourselves so frustrated, “If only this source existed,” “If only this census data was not destroyed,” “If only everything survived.” Unfortunately those sources rarely exist and contextual evidence must be used. Maybe I’m just bitter that Lina had it so easy, simply being handed a file by the archivist, “Here you go, everything you need is contained in this one letter that I so conveniently seem to have right here.” If only I had a magical archivist guiding me in my Masters research.

The ending of the book fell flat. I think ending a book is one of the hardest things to do, but after such a compelling start and build up, there was no real crescendo and the ending felt rushed with loose ends hastily tied together. It was an ok read, a good piece of historical fiction, but nothing to rave about.

Rating: 3/5

Amy Tan – The Valley of Amazement (2013)

ValleyofAmazementFrom one of my favourite authors comes this beautifully spun tale about the relationship between mothers and daughters. The Joy Luck Club, also by Amy Tan, deals with similar themes regarding the relationship between mothers and daughters in both China and the United States. The Valley of Amazement is similar but is a singular approach to the subject looking at one family and their struggles.

The story opens in 1912 where Violet Minturn, a 12-year-old half Chinese and half American girl living in a Courtesan House run by her mother in Shanghai. Violet is stolen from her mother by a cruel bout of trickery and is forced to become a virgin courtesan. Through the support of former courtesan and trusted friend, Magic Gourd, Violet becomes respected in Shanghai and is able to survive, and even thrive in her new surroundings. After having her own daughter taken from her, Violet vows to do anything to get her back setting her off on a new path.

Tan spans fifty years and takes the reader from the dazzling courtesan houses of Shanghai, a stifling house in San Francisco, to the back woods and hidden villages of China’s countryside telling a deeply moving narrative of tragedy, loss, and love. Told with humor and grace, Tan’s novel truly is a work of art.