Tag Archive | historical fiction

Book Review: The German Girl

The German Girl is the debut novel of Armando Lucas Correa, a Cuban author.  It was published in 2016 in both Spanish and English.

The German Girl

The story is that of two girls, brought together over time.  Hannah Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee fleeing to Cuba via ocean liner in 1939.  And Anna, a 14 year old girl living in New York City.

The perspective shifts back and forth between the two of them as the story unfolds, piece by piece.  Hannah’s flight from Germany, trying to escape the reach of the Nazis.  Anna’s trying to learn why her father left her, and understand why her mother just doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.  I don’t want to reveal much, as the suspense and hold of the story would be diminished if you knew what was waiting around the next corner.

This novel was incredible.  Sweet, and heartbreaking, it pulls you in page after page, not wanting to put it down.  What will happen to these girls as their lives unfold?

5 stars.

 

Book Review: Dragonfly in Amber

Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

Claire Randall has a secret.  She’s kept it for over 20 years, but finally it is time to return to Scotland and confront her past.  Dragonfly in Amber is the second in the Outlander series, but my friend assured me that you can read them out of order.

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander, #2)

The story begins with Claire searching for historical records that will confirm her difficult to believe story.  20 years before, she went missing for months as a young, married woman, before arriving back at home malnourished and pregnant, as mysteriously as she vanished.  But where was she?

Now 20 years later, Claire’s husband has died and it is time to reveal to her daughter the truth about her father.

The book is a long saga weaving in the 1960s with the 1740s, in Claire’s attempt to stop the slaughter at Culloden during the Scottish Jacobite rebellion.  It weaves history into the novel’s story and is extremely detailed and painstakingly researched.  You will learn about the family connections of the clans in Scotland, the political motives of the various players, and some pretty gruesome medical treatments of the time.

I don’t want to give away the story, but highly recommend the book. The only challenge was that it took so long to get through (I admit I had to put it down to read other things in between), it was hard to remember the beginning once I got to the end.

5 stars

 

Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin

This book was another pick from the “available now” section of audiobooks on the library website.  I hadn’t heard of the book, or the author, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Mistress of the Ritz

Blanche wanted to be rich and famous – she was going to make it as an actress!  She arrived in Paris in the early 1920s with her silent film star friend Pearl White, and met the assistant manager of the Hotel Claridge, Claude Auzello, when they checked into their rooms.  Claude found out that in a weeks’ time, Blanche was set to rendezvous with her paramour, Egyptian Prince J’Ali Ledene; he set about to sweep Blanche off her feet by showing her Paris.  And it worked…

Blanche and Claude married, and he jump-started his career with a move to The Ritz Paris, where he secured the role as Hotel Manager.  Their lives were wonderful until the Nazis came and set up their headquarters in the Hotel Ritz.

The book is a story of secrets, and a marriage built upon those secrets.  Their marriage crumbles, as Claude takes a mistress, and Blanche begins working clandestinely for the French Resistance.  But even more so, it is a story of love.  Love tested by hardship and betrayal, and love that blossoms in the most unexpected of places.

It wasn’t until I finished the book that I learned that Blanche and Claude Auzello were real people, who navigated their way through the French Occupation while living right underneath the noses of the Nazis at the Ritz.  The framework of Blanche’s life is known, but Melanie Benjamin filled in the gaps in this wonderful historical work of fiction.  A must read for lovers of historical fiction, and World War II history.

5 stars. 

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer is first and foremost a novel about love.  It is set against the complicated backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust, but throughout, it retains its focus on love.

The Invisible Bridge

Andras Lévi is a young Hungarian Jew, setting off for Paris to attend architectural school in 1937.  He has earned a scholarship for his studies, and is eager to get his education and make his mark on the world.  As a favor to a stranger, he agrees to carry a letter with him to Paris, and as a result meets a woman ten years his senior.  Clara is a beautiful ballet teacher, with a secret history; Andras falls deeply in love with her despite their age difference.

Of course, the late 30s across Europe was an uncertain time, as Hitler consolidated his power and the continent descended into World War II.  The novel follows Andras throughout the next several years of his life, detailing his experiences as his home country of Hungary allies with the Nazis, goes to war and eventually begins its deportation and murder of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews.

Yet through it all, there is love.  A reminder that when all seems hopeless, a glimmer of sunlight remains.

It is beautifully written, pulling the reader effortlessly around the next corner even when we want nothing more than to shield our eyes and hide.  Orringer’s character development is stunning, and she weaves the narrative skillfully through a decade that includes some of the most heart wrenching events in world history.  What a profound and poignant novel, that both breaks your heart and makes you believe in the power of love…

5 stars. 

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, is a work of historical fiction about a woman whose story has largely been lost to time…

Mileva Marić Einstein was Albert Einstein’s first wife.  They met when they were physics classmates together at the Zurich Polytechnic, where they were both studying physics and mathematics.  She was brilliant in her own right, being the second woman in the history of the university to finish the course of study.  Marić and Einstein collaborated on several projects while they were students, and historical records show that they were equals in the scientific field, although their fellow students believed Marić’s mathematical abilities surpassed Einstein’s.  He was an attentive and passionate suitor, and showered her with love and affection during their courtship.

The Other Einstein

Things changed once she got pregnant out of wedlock with his child.  Marić returned to her family home during her pregnancy and remained there after the birth of their daughter.  She repeatedly requested that Einstein visit them, and that he marry her and make their child legitimate, but he let her down, and left her alone for several months during her pregnancy and after the birth of their daughter.  Even after she was born, he refused to marry her and legitimize their daughter; the record is unclear, and does not account for what happened to their daughter, other than the fact that she was no longer in their lives when they married.

Marić and Einstein finally married in 1903; and by all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage.  Einstein had a brilliant mind, but the historical record does not reflect kindly on his ability to maintain a kind or loving relationship.  It was his way or the highway; he expected his wife to act as a servant during their marriage, rather than a partner.  Her wishes went unheeded and her aspirations were ignored.  It is unknown whether Marić played a role in collaborating with Einstein on his theories, especially his Theory of Relativity, but it is quite possible that she was involved in his research and never received credit.  It must have been heartbreaking for her to be in love with a man who simply wanted control and submission from her, rather than a partner in life.

The book is insightful into the mind of a man who had many talents, of which his ability to treat people kindly was not one.  Over time, their relationship suffered as a result of his ongoing emotional abuse and neglect.  Her academic passions, her career and the love of her husband had all been stripped from her by the man who once swore that they were one.  They separated in 1914, and finally divorced (after the mandatory waiting period) in 1919.

This book is part love story, and part the story of an incredibly strong woman who was ahead of her time…  She had to make a choice between her career and a marriage, and in the end she got neither…  Her story is not uplifting, but relatable for intelligent, career women to this day.

4 stars. 

 

Book Review: The Winemaker’s Wife

The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristen Harmel

In this historical novel, Inès and Michel are a young newlywed couple in the Champagne region of France at the beginning of World War II. Michel’s family business, the champagne house of Maison Chauveau and its elaborate wine cellars are the perfect location to hide guns for the French Resistance. Inès and Céline, the wife of Maison Chauveau’s winemaker, have a strained relationship and do not see eye to eye.

Liv is the American granddaughter of a French woman who whisks her off to France after Liv’s marriage falls apart and she finds herself starting over. She soon learns that her grandmother has secrets; the frail, elderly woman is taking her on a wild goose chase to uncover her long-buried family history, a history she tried to leave behind at the end of the war.

Harmel takes the reader on a series of twists and turns; each character is not who they initially seem to be. They are complex and multi-dimensional, making it impossible to either love or hate any of them. Each one has their good and bad qualities, much like we all do in real life, which are exacerbated by the stress and privation of war.

I don’t want to give much away, because each twist in this winding road is worth discovering for yourself. Just know, it is well worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

I found this historical romance novel in my neighborhood free library, and it looked interesting.  And it was!

The Winter Sea (Slains #1)

The book tells two parallel stories.  An American author, Carrie, living abroad, trying to overcome her writer’s block and get moving on her next historical novel.  A young, orphaned woman, Sophia, living in the early 1700s at Slains, a castle owned by a distant relative who has taken her in.

The novel weaves expertly from the past to the present, with Carrie writing the Sophia’s story, learning more and more about her, and realizing that Sophia is her own ancestor.  The story is set during the Jacobite Rebellion, where an exiled King James is attempting to mount a revolution to regain the throne from France.

I don’t know much about the English kings and queens of the 17th and 18th centuries, and I don’t know how historically accurate this book is, but it was interesting and it read quickly.  The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter made me want to continue reading long after I should have gone to bed.

There is a fair amount of romance in it, both in the historical portions and the present day, but it is mild if you aren’t a romance reader.  I enjoyed the combination of history and love story.

3 stars.

Book Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham may be the most incredible woman you have never heard of.  Of, if you have read this blog for a while, you may remember that I blogged about her memoir a couple of years ago.

Markham lived an incredible life, as the first woman licensed race horse trainer.  She was also the first woman bush pilot in Africa.  And the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.

Circling the Sun

This historical novel details Markham’s life from childhood to the time of her momentous flight.  Paula McLain researched her life and told the story that many have probably never heard of.

Markham had a significant amount of tragedy in her personal life.  She was born in England but her parents moved to Africa to find their fortune when she was a young child.  Her mother wasn’t happy there, and abandoned her at the age of 5, leaving Africa to return to England with her brother; Beryl and her father remained there on the ranch he had founded.

Her father’s bankruptcy in her teens was the end of her sheltered upbringing; she chose to get married in order to be able to remain near her childhood home, but her husband was a drunk, and both physically and emotionally abusive.  He did not allow her a divorce for years, and when he finally granted it, she was financially ruined. Markham’s second marriage was a disaster too; her second husband essentially used his wealth and power to keep her son from her, while trying to smear her reputation in the process.  She had returned to England with him to have her son, but eventually went back to Africa when she divorced, seeing her son only sporadically.

She had a number of affairs which significantly damaged her reputation, both real and some potentially only errant rumors – either way they affected her standing in society.  According to the novel Beryl found true love in the arms of a man named Denys Finch Hatton, who had a long and committed relationship with a woman whom Beryl also had a lasting friendship with.  Complicated…

After her second divorce and return to Africa, she rebuilt her life training race horses and enjoyed a measure of success that was rare for a woman of the time.  She was introduced to people who were on the forefront of aviation and set her mind to learning to fly.  Sadly, she experienced the death of several close friends in air crashes, including her beloved long-term lover Denys.  She was supposed to go with him that day but stayed home after a close friend and fellow pilot allegedly had a premonition and urged her not to go.  The death impacted her deeply.

McLain tells the story fluidly, and her character development is superb.  Her descriptions of the African landscape show the reader what it would have been like to live in Africa in the nineteen teens, twenties and thirties.  Unlike Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, which deals almost exclusively with Markham’s professional exploits, Circling the Sun tells the story of the Markham’s personal life in a way that is candid yet non-judgmental.

Markham lived on her own terms, but it was not without consequences.  It was a well written novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

4 stars.

Book Review: China Dolls

When you don’t have family, who can you turn to? The family that you choose – friends. China Dolls, by Lisa See, is a book about friendship. Not just any friendship – three friends from seemingly different backgrounds. Helen, Grace and Ruby – three Asian women coming of age just before World War II. But that’s where the similarities end.

China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls by Lisa See

Grace grew up in small town middle America, the only Asian girl in her town. She learned to sing and dance and fit in with the culture and customs of her white neighbors. Trouble with her father caused her to run away to San Francisco to start a new life.

Helen was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the only daughter in a family that prized her seven brothers. She lives in the family compound, a constant reminder of the family’s bad luck, torn between her loyalty to her family’s traditional culture and the modern big city life that is all around her.

Ruby grew up in Hawaii, and moved to San Francisco to launch her show biz career. She is loud, brash, and forward, shocking the other two girls with her tendency to flaunt her body. She is hiding a secret though, that would eventually change her life forever.

The three meet by chance and get jobs at a new Chinatown nightclub, dancing in a show that is risqué for its time. As the three bond, they learn each other’s hopes, dreams, fears and secrets, and learn that each one of them is not quite who she seemed. They go through life’s joys and disappointments, often together and sometimes apart.

The book is well written, switching between the three character’s stories effortlessly, providing each woman’s unique perspective, formed by the life she has led. The book explores some deep subject matter: friendship, womanhood, love, domestic violence, promiscuity, homosexuality, war, and the complexity of traditional Chinese culture. Within each of these contexts, the novel explores a woman’s experience, and it does it in a way that is often raw and heart-wrenching.

At times the women are quite drama-queeny – but I appreciated that it captures the essence of these three friends as complex, flawed beings. Each of them succumbs to the temptation of self-interest at times – only able to see and consider her own needs. At other times, each woman is incredibly generous, putting her own desires aside to help her friends.

The secrets come out throughout the novel, while following these women through the war and beyond. Some secrets you are expecting; some are so deeply hidden that you feel just as shocked as the other friends when the truth is revealed. And when it is, you finally feel that you understand the motivation. Times change, people change, but the friendship remains.

I enjoyed China Dolls; it was an interesting trip back in time.

Book Review: The 19th Wife

I’m not usually that into murder mysteries.  But when a novel is a cross between a murder mystery and historical fiction?  And when you add in one of the most controversial religious doctrines in American history?  I’m in!  Plus, someone several years ago had recommended The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and I was lucky enough to find it at the library book sale.

This novel starts out by telling the story of Jordan Scott, a young man who became a “lost boy” several years before; kicked out of a Fundamentalist Mormon closed community for the minor (and false) charge of holding hands with a girl.  He finds out that his mother, who was forced to cut off contact when he was booted from the community, has been charged with the murder of his father, and is in jail awaiting trial.  He re-establishes contact with her, even though he is still angry and hurt about being abandoned, in order to find the truth.

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The story is interwoven with the story of Ann Eliza Young, one of the true life wives of Brigham Young; the one who renounced her faith and fled the community, at the same time filing for divorce from her husband.  She wrote a book about her experience, and this novel includes excerpts from Mrs. Young’s book, detailing her experiences within the Mormon church, as a plural wife, and her apostasy and attempt to get the U.S. Government to ban polygamy.

While Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and did write a book, it is unclear whether the excerpts in this novel are taken from Young’s book or another piece of fiction.  It probably doesn’t matter; they are well written and believable.  Of course, Ebershoff fills in the gaps of Ann Eliza’s life as well with an intriguing story about how she ultimately ended up as one of Brigham Young’s 55 wives.

As the two stories alternate, suspense builds as Jordan confronts the still raw emotions he feels after being cast out, and as he gets himself into increasingly dangerous situations as he takes the law into his own hands and tries to solve the mystery of who really murdered his father.  Although fiction, the scare tactics used by the men of the closed community to get Jordan to leave well enough alone, well, those are real.

Although fiction, this novel does a great job of shedding light on a religious community that is all too real, and that uses its power to perpetuate a system of subjugating its women and children to the demands of a few powerful men.  It is heartbreaking to reflect on the hopeless lives these women lead, entirely at the mercy of their Prophet.  It is a real page turner – although a long book (544 pages), it kept me captivated from beginning to end.

To be honest, I would have loved the book even if it didn’t have the murder mystery plot line.  I thought the historical fiction pieces of the novel were just that powerful.  But the murder did provide an interesting bit of intrigue and a tie in to present day.  Now that I’ve finished The 19th Wife, I might have to read Ann Eliza Young’s book too!

Have you read The 19th Wife?  What did you think of it?