Category Archives: Historical Fiction

A God In Ruins

agod  A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2015

Borrowed from my public library.

The first book I read by Kate Atkinson was When Will There Be Good News? .  I remember devouring it, loving the characters, loving the writing.  I read all the Jackson Brodie books, and was excited to learn about Life After Life.

It took me weeks to read that book.  I kept picking it up and putting it down, not sure if I would ever get through it.  I think it was the time shifting, creating a kind of vertigo, much like the main character, Ursula Todd, felt, constantly dying and being reborn.  I ended up finishing the book, really enjoying it, and amazed at Atkinson’s writing abilities, at how different Life After Life was from her other novels.

Atkinson calls A God In Ruins a companion piece to Life After Life.  I read it over five days, taking it in at a moderate pace. It follows the life of Ursula’s younger brotherTeddy, and lovingly weaves in family members, Teddy’s parents, his wife, child and grandchildren.  It also shift chronologically, following the lives of these people in a way I found less jarring, filling in the Todd family story and allowing for mystery, elements of family drama that evolve because of events finally revealed at the end of the book.

There is history it both of these novels, World War II, the blitz, the British and Allied bombing of Germany.  Atkinson dug deep, she holds nothing back in her descriptions of the blitz, in the scenes of Teddy and his crew in their Halifax bomber, flying to and from their bombing runs.   A God In Ruins is beautifully written, deeply engaging and I found it emotionally honest.  I highly recommend it, even if you haven’t read Life After Life.

There, I’ve jumped in, glad to be back in the water.  I find myself reading more and more historical fiction lately, particularly World War I and World War II.  Not sure what that is about but any suggestions would be appreciated.

 

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Filed under Books, British, Historical Fiction, Kate Atkinson, Uncategorized

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

1401340873.01._SX140_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Hyperion, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my library.  I’ve had this one on my TBR list for a while. I must admit I was a bit nervous about reading it.  The time and place could part of my personal story and, having found Groff’s The Monster of Templeton a bit unbalanced, I wasn’t sure how she would portray this slice of American history.  I needn’t have worried.

Arcadia is Ridley Sorrel Stone’s story.  Known as Bit, born in a van traveling with a caravan of trucks, buses and VWs searching for paradise, this child grows up in a commune known as Arcadia.  Acreage filled with fields and forest and a run-down mansion in upstate New York, lead by musician/guru Handy and overflowing with mid-wives, farmers, bakers and those lost to mind-bending drugs, Arcadia grows and changes along with Bit and his parents, Hannah and Abe.

When Bit closes his eyes, he can see what Abe can see,how Arcadia spreads below him: the garden where the other children push corn, bean seeds into the rows,the Pond. The fresh plowed corduroy fields, workers like burdocks stuck to them.  Amos the Amish’s red barn, tiny in the distance.  The roll of the forest tucked up under the hills.  And whatever is beyond: cities of glass, of steel.  from page 80.

This could have been over the top, but Groff handles it gently, in a kind and balanced way.  Her writing is vivid, both in depicting Arcadia, the falling-down and rebuilt mansion, and in telling the stories of the people who live there .  In reality, not all people living on communes were dysfunctional, some where completely committed to building a new way of living and being.  As Bit grows up and ventures into the “real” world he takes the lessons learned from his parents, his “extended” family and Arcadia with him.

I enjoyed Arcadia, it will be on my Best of 2013 list, and I look forward to reading more from Lauren Groff.  In skimming some comments about this novel on GoodReads, I saw several references to “dirty hippies”.  Can I say that I find this term highly offensive?  Want to talk about it?

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Filed under America, Books, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

bodiesBring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012

Winner of  Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker Prize.  Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s proposed trilogy, won the Booker in 2009. My first Long-Awaited Reads novel and the first book for the 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge.  If you were to ask me right now I would say that Hilary Mantel is my favorite author.

Katherine of Aragon is shuttled off to the country.  Anne Boleyn is Queen.  King Henry grows distant from his second wife and, when Anne fails to give him a son, the King’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, senses change.  It is Cromwell’s knowledge of the past that brings the future into focus.

Bring Up The Bodies is not as densely written as Wolf Hall , but that doesn’t take away from the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing.  This is the second book in the planned trilogy  about Thomas Cromwell’s life and the interweaving of dialogue and description bring all of her characters vibrantly to  life, almost as if I were watching them on stage and not curled up reading with a cup of coffee.  There is drama, action and an almost physical sensation of movement.

Duke Charles Brandon approaching King Henry in front of  Eustache Chapuys, ambassador of Emperor Charles V:

He, Cromwell, follows on the duke’s heels.  If he had a net, he would drop it over him. ‘Leave what you’re doing, Majesty.  You want to hear this, by God.  You’re quit of the old lady.  She is on her deathbed.  You will soon be a widower.  Then you can get rid of the other one, and marry into France, by God, and lay your hands on Normandy as dowry…’ He notices Chapuys.  ‘Oh, Ambassador.  Well, you can take yourself off.  No use you staying for scraps.  Go home and make your own Christmas, we don’t want you here.’

Henry has turned white.  ‘Think what you are saying.’  He approached Brandon as if he might knock him down; which, if he had a poleaxe, he could.  ‘My wife is carrying a child.  I am lawfully married.’  from page 128.

I can hear the bumbling Brandon and feel King Henry’s fury.  Many biographic and fictional accounts of this time period, including A Man For All Seasons and The Tudors (which I have not seen), Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as an evil figure.  Mantel has given him swift intelligence and a conscience, even if he does not hesitate to destroy those the King finds standing in his way.  He had traveled widely in his youth and learned much from what he’d seen and heard.  He constantly applies this knowledge to the changing political environment around him.

He had met an old knight once, in Venice, one of those men who made a career of riding to tournaments all over Europe.  The man described his life to him, crossing frontiers with his band of esquires and his string of horses, always on the move from one prize to the next, til age and the accumulation of injuries put him out of the game.  On his own now, he tried to pick up a living  teaching young lords, enduring mockery and time-wasting; in my day, he had said, the young were taught manners, but now I find myself fettling horses and polishing breastplates for some little tosspot I wouldn’t have let clean my boots in the old days;  for look at me now, reduced to drinking with, what are you, an Englishman?

…How shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed?  These were his instructions: you must sit easy in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air.  Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected.  In the combat à plaisance, with its fluttering flags,, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill.  In the combat à l’outrance, kill as if it were sport.  Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him:  he tightens him muscles, he pulls his lance-arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off his mark;  if you avoid one fault, avoid that.  Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on target.  But remember this above all else: defeat your instinct.  Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all?  Why not be s smith, a brewer, a wool merchant?  Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die? from pages 165/167.

A  perfect lesson to take into the court of King Henry the Eight.

Bring Up The Bodies follows Cromwell through the death of Katherine of Aragon, the King’s developing fascination with Jane Seymour and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, on of the most chilling scenes I have ever read.  Chilling and beautiful, if that is possible.  I can not wait for the third novel in this trilogy, and anything else Mantel writes in the future.

There is a wonderful column about Mantel’s process of writing Wolf Hall in the Guardian and a fascinating profile of the author in The New Yorker.

LAR Button Final

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Filed under 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge, 2013 TBR Double Dog Dare, Booker, Hilary Mantel, Historical Fiction, Long Awaited Reads Month

2013 Historical Fiction Challenge

HFReadingChallenge2013-V2I thought I might not join in any new challenges for 2013 but because of my developing love for historical fiction I was completely drawn in by this one.

The 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge is organized by Historical Tapestry.  There are many reading levels. I hope to complete the Renaissance Reader level and read 10 books, though at the rate I’ve been going it may be more.

Some books I plan on reading:

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

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John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

saturnallJohn Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Grove Press, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my local library.  I first read about this one on Cornflower Books.

John Saturnall’s Feast is beautiful to look at and a wonder to read.  Each chapter is headed by an illustration followed by a recipe or a description of a garden, perhaps a garden called Eden.  The language is lush and deep, filled with smells and tastes and surrounded by the clatter  of a busy castle kitchen.  It reads like a fantasy, but fantasy based in the history, people and culture of 17th century Britain.

From Lawrence Norfolk’s webpage:

1625. In the remote village of Buckland, a mob chants of witchcraft. John Sandall and his mother Susan are driven out to take refuge among the trees of Buccla’s Wood. There, John’s mother opens her book and begins to tell her son of an ancient Feast kept in secret down the generations.

Driven from the village after his mother’s death, John ends up being put to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor.  His skills bring him to the attention of the master chief and he eventually creates dishes for Sir William Fremantle.  Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, forced to accept a marriage because she can not inherit her father’s title, Manor and all its properties, is refusing to eat.  John is charged with preparing her meals and enticing her to give up her fast.

Norfolk writes that:

The starting-point for John Saturnall’s Feast was a chapter in Kate Colqhoun’s “Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking”.

This history of Britain is one thread of this novel, the relationship between John and Lucy is the tapestry.  Made up of legend, myth and recipes culled from many records of the time, John Saturnall’s Feast is, well, a feast.  It is one of my top ten books from 2012.

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Filed under Booker, Books, England, Historical Fiction

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Weinstein Books, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my public library.  Short-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize.

In Kuala Lampor, Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh has been slowly loosing her mind.  Wary of her malady becoming evident to others, she takes early retirement and returns to a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, owned by family friends.  36 years before, having been released from a Japanese prison camp, she had spent time there.  Traumatised by her sister’s death in the camp and wishing to design a Japanese style garden as a memorial, she is introduced to Aritomo Nakamura, who was once the gardener to the Japanese Emperor.  She asks him to build a garden for her sister.  He refuses, but says he will take her on as an apprentice.   Yun Ling hates the Japanese, but her desire to design a garden in memory of her sister forces her through that hatred.  She stays, and learns to garden.

It is the tangle of history between the Chinese, Japanese, British and Malaysian people, as well as the relationship that grows between Yun Ling and Aritomo, that forms the base of this complex and beautifully written story.  Woven throughout is the history of the land and its people.  Tamn Twan Eng has written a puzzle box of a novel that, in the end,  forces us to question our ideas about memory.

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Filed under Booker, Books, China, Historical Fiction, Japan, Malaya, Thoughts, War

Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller

Europa Editions, New York, 2012

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the 2011 Costa Best Novel Award.

I’m not sure where I first heard of this one, but I bet it was a review on The Guardian website.  I held off ordering it from abroad and was pleased to see that Europaeditions was quick to publish it in the US.

This is the kind of novel that I love.  Historical fiction so enticing that I just couldn’t put it down.

In 1785 Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a modern young engineer from Normandy,  arrives in Paris to do a job given to him by a government minister.  He’s to empty the overflowing graveyard at the church of Les Innocents, a place whose abundance of burials is poisoning the neighborhood. He boards with a family whose house is across the road from the cemetery.  He sets about his job, with the help of an old work-mate and some minors from the country, clearing the place of the stench and burden of the past, only to find he may be making space for something completely unexpected.  Are the rotting bodies a symbol of the rotting regime?  Is the clearing of the churchyard a sign of  bigger changes to come?

Pre-revolutionary Paris comes alive, the city filled with people I want to know, places I want to visit.  And the writing just flows,  it felt to me like I was floating on a river of words:

     They have entered one end of a curious clogged vein of a street, more ally than street, more gutter than alley.  The top stories of the buildings tilt towards each other, just a narrow line of white sky between them.  On both sides of the street, every second house is a shop and every shop sells cheese.  sometimes eggs, sometimes milk and butter, but always cheese.  Cheese in the windows, cheese laid out on tables and handcarts, cheese piled on straw, cheese hanging on strings or floating in tubs of brine.  Cheeses that must be sliced with a knife big enough to slaughter a bull, cheeses scooped with carved wooden spoons.  Red, green, grey, pink, purest white.  Jean-Baptiste has no idea what most of them are or where they come from, but on he immediately recognizes and his heart lifts as if he has caught sight of some dear old face from home.  Pont-l’Evêque!  Norman grass!  Norman air!

‘Want to try some?’ asks the girl, but his interest has moved to the stall next door, where a woman in a red cloak is buying a little cake of goat cheese, the rind rolled in ashes.

That,’ says the organist, leaning across Jean-Baptiste’s shoulder, ‘is the Austrian.  So called on account of her likeness to our beloved queen.  And not just the blond hair.  Hey, Héloïse!  Meet my friend here, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, and whose come from god-knows-where to turn our lives upside down.’

She is counting out little coins for the cheese.  She glances over, first at Armand, then at Jean-Baptiste.  Does he blush?  he thinks perhaps he has frowned at her.  Then she looks away, takes her purchase, starts to move through the crowd.  From page 46.

Miller’s work reads so naturally I found myself lost in Pure for hours.   The writing is precise, very beautiful, and the story is engaging.  I urge you to give it a try.

Over Paris, the stars are fragments of  a glass ball flung at the sky.  The temperature is falling.  In an hour or two the first frost flowers will bloom on the grass of the parade grounds, parks, royal gardens, cemeteries.  The streetlamps are guttering.  For their last half hour they burn a smoky orange and illuminate nothing but themselves.

In the faubourgs of the rich, watchman call the hour.  In the rookeries of the poor, blunt fingers try to hide in each other’s warmth.  From page 72.

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Filed under Books, Costa Award, Historical Fiction, Thoughts