Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

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.

Linda Lafferty – The Bloodletter’s Daughter (2012)

BloodlettersDaughter

I applaud Linda Lafferty for what she attempted to do with her novel. The characters and events are actually based on a somewhat true/folkloric tale, that tells the story of Don Julius and his infatuation with Markéta Pichlerová, a Bohemian bath maid and daughter of his bloodletter. Don Julius was a real person, and the illegitimate child of Emperor Rudolf II. He had an ill-balanced mind, and was sent to seek treatment from the bloodletter to “balance his humours.” It is not known whether the character of Markéta existed, but the story goes that Don Julius was so infatuated with her but threated to kill her many times, due to his ill balanced mind, and finally he did, disfiguring her body terribly.

Lafferty attempts to construct a fictional narrative of Markéta’s life, as a strong willed smart young woman not content to simply be a bathmaid like her mother for the rest of her life. At the same time however, Markéta is still young and naïve and her belief that Don Julius would protect her may seem crazy, but is also understandable. Lafferty does a good job crafting her characters.

There were however, some stylistic problems as the dialogue was choppy and did not always flow naturally. While Lafferty does a good job with the profiles of Markéta and Don Julius, the other characters seem a bit cliché and scripted. I also wish Lafferty talked a bit more about the medical history of the time; the beliefs surround bloodletting and the balancing of the humours is so interesting, but is only slightly touched upon.

Still, Lafferty does a good job, telling a compelling story from a time period that does not gain a great deal of attention in the realm of historical fiction (17th century Bohemia). It’s a fast read for anyone interested in the time period.

Edward Rutherfurd – Paris (2013)

Paris

In another beautifully written piece of historical fiction, Edward Rutherfurd has done it again creating a masterpiece surrounding The world’s most romantic city, Paris. This work is a departure of Rutherford’s earlier ones in that it does not move chronologically. Instead Rutherford jumps back and forth in time tracing the history of Paris from the Middle Ages to the Second World War and following the families that are affected.

Ruthurford has received criticism for falling into a formula, where he follows a set number of families and follows them throughout history. The jumping back-and-forth in time is probably to remedy this, but it makes it difficult to develop characters and readers can get easily lost.

Ruthurford has also received criticism due to the fact that his novels are not really stories, but rather histories with a narrative attached. For instance characters’ introduced are often clichés and their motivations are expected. (The high-born de Cygnes are pitted against the lowborn Le Sourds throughout the entire book) I don’t really find this to be problematic as some however, as this strategy provides the reader with a well rounded view of the Paris at any given time period.

With historical fiction like this there is a fine line to tread. Is the novel going to be too focused on the historical side? (Rutherford does seem to love the history of architecture and often spends lengthy passages describing buildings that have no affect on the plot) or do you rely heavily on a narrative to move through a story? Rutherford is writing in a very particular genre (one that Ken Follett is also writing in) and that is of the historical epic. The criticism that Rutherford has received can be applied to the genre itself, and not particularly to his writing.

For me, what made this novel so superb was the segment devoted to the Second World War. Personally I have always felt that Paris during WWII had a certain romanticism to it, with the Vichy regime and the French Underground and resistance. Rutherfurd took the heroic stories of the Resistance to the extreme and I absolutely loved it. I kind of wish that part of the story was its own novel, but again, that’s just me.

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace (1996)

AliasGrace

I have previous stated elsewhere that I only enjoy Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futures. Alias Grace is not a dystopian future, but is historical fiction, which is my favourite genre. While it took me a while to get into the story, Atwood likes to switch between the perspective of a doctor and the perspective of Grace herself which makes the story feel disjointed at times, I fell into its pace quickly.

Alias Grace, is Atwood’s take on the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. While I had originally anticipated the book to be Atwood’s reconstruction of the events, the story was much more. The novel is not an attempt to blame Grace Marks for the murders, nor is it an attempt to dissolve her from guilt. It took me a while to realize what Atwood was trying to do, but from my point of view she was trying to show the how Grace Marks was viewed at the time, especially through the eyes of a (fictional) doctor conducting research into criminal behavior, and the media. Atwood also writes from Grace’s point of view regarding events leading up to the murders and after her conviction but when written from Grace’s point of view, the reader is not sure if Grace is speaking or thinking, thus if the events are true, making this read even more intriguing.

There is no question that Atwood is a wonderful story teller and she spins the story of Grace Marks in such a twisted and interesting way. While Grace is the main character in the story, the reader never gets a true grasp on who she really is. Even through her own perspective, Grace’s character seems to shift into all the different roles ascribed to her, a murderess, a seducer, an innocent servant tricked by a jealous farmhand. Just as historically no one was sure if Grace Marks was guilty or not, the reader is left similarly wondering the same thing.

Rick Fontes – The Time of the Preacher (2014)

TimeofThePreacher

Rick Fontes’, The Time of the Preacher, will appeal to anyone who has a love of the Western genre. While the book has some issues, it proved to be a fast paced and enjoyable read.

Fontes’ book centers around the character of Brian McFee, an Irish immigrant who get’s mixed up in some questionable dealing in the Western United States before trying to reform himself by becoming a preacher. Unfortunately the Irishman’s past follows him, and he never gains full control of his temper.

While the story is compelling, at times things feel a bit rushed. Fontes definitely could have spent some more time on character development and flushing out the details of the plot instead of trying to make it a fast-paced, like many other Westerns. I would have loved some more information about Brian McFee’s past, and it could have definitely added another dimension to the character. The character of Salome too, who generally plays the role of a victim throughout the novel, could use some more development. There were a number of times when I didn’t really understand the motivations behind her actions.

I did appreciate that Fonte’s did not get too attached to his characters, and acknowledged their flaws. With a bit more editing and time, this novel has real potential to be quite something.