Posts Categorized: Historical Fiction

May 05

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by HP Wood

Historical Fiction, Plague 5

Greetings Bookworms!

I’m about to tell you a story about what happens when one doesn’t read titles carefully. I was browsing NetGalley one day looking for something to read (it’s a rare occasion that I go hunting for books in this manner, as they usually find me, but I was in a reading lull.) Anywho. I ran across a book called Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by HP Wood. However, seeing as I had Harry Potter on the brain at the time, I read “Magruder’s” as “Marauder’s.” It sounded a bit circus-y, so I was down for it, even once I realized I’d misread the title.

magrudersMagruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is set in 1904 Coney Island. Kitty Hayward is a British girl visiting the attractions in Coney Island with her mother when her mother comes down with a mysterious illness. The hotel staff send her off on a fool’s errand for some medicine, and upon her return she’s treated as though she and her mother were never at the hotel. She’s left marooned on a strange island in a strange country. She’s penniless and frightened, not to mention terrified for her mother’s well-being. The residents of Coney Island are largely “Unusuals,” or the sideshow entertainers. It’s an eclectic bunch of strongmen, flea wranglers, lion tamers, and con men that Kitty encounters, but the Unusuals quickly embrace their suddenly impoverished foreign guest. Plagues make for strange bedfellows, after all, because that mysterious illness Kitty’s mother contracted? It’s spreading.

I must admit I was rather disappointed to discover that there was no actual reported outbreak of plague in Coney Island during this time period. I like my historical fiction best when the overarching situations are rooted in fact. I also adore a motley crew of misfits, so I was on board with the Unusuals and their fascinating little society. Unfortunately, I found the execution just a bit clunky. It got to a point where it seemed like every cool or quirky concept the author brainstormed while writing was thrown in for the sake of not wasting an idea rather than making sure it worked well in the narrative. In the end, I was left wanting more backstory for certain characters and fewer extraneous asides. Still, I think it’s a book worth reading- it’s certainly a fun and bizarre ride. If you’re in the mood for something different and dig the whole circus/sideshow thing, you should totally check out Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet

Talk to me, Bookworms! Have any of y’all been to Coney Island? What’s it like? Is it one of those places that just seems to breathe with old timey creeptasticness?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Apr 04

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

Historical Fiction 6

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

The things I like about Mondays are extremely limited, but they’re greatly improved when I get a chance to discuss historical fiction. Yay for books, saving all the days of the week from abject horribleness! Today we’re heading back to WWI England, or, perhaps more specifically, the summer before WWI. Hence the title of Helen Simonson’s new book, The Summer Before the War. *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I’ll still be honest and all that, because I lack social graces.*

summerbeforethewarIt’s the summer of 1914 in Sussex, England. Beatrice Nash arrives in picturesque Rye with a few crates of books and something to prove as the school’s new Latin teacher. Hugh Grange is a medical student in town visiting with his formidable Aunt Agatha, Uncle John, and cousin Daniel. The troubles in the Balkans seem far removed from the glorious weather and small town scandals of Sussex. I mean, a FEMALE Latin teacher? Agatha staked her reputation on bringing Beatrice to town. And Beatrice has her own problems- she’s mourning the loss of her beloved father while struggling against a system that makes what little inheritance she has nearly impossible for her to access. Unfortunately, war breaks out, as war tends to do, and the town is transformed by the war efforts and preparations to send so many of their young men off to war.

Ah what a whirlwind, am I right?! Believe it or not, I actually had a hard time getting invested in this book at first. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the fault of the book, just one of those weird mood things, but it took me a while to really dive into this world. Once I did though? Well, suffice it to say that a number of late night tears were shed while I SHOULD have been sleeping because I couldn’t put the book down. And because I have feelings. If you dig historical fiction, The Summer Before the War is definitely one you should check out.

Talk to me Bookworms! What was the last book you read that kept you up late? Made you cry?

*If you make  a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Feb 11

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Friendship, Historical Fiction 6

Hello My Darling Bookworms,

I have a nasty habit of reading books about writers whose books I have not read. I mean, if you can say that two books constitute a habit… I recently finished The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin which is about Truman Capote and his gang of high class New York socialite gal pals. Having read nothing by Truman Capote, everything about this book was new territory for me (much like The Dream Lover (review) was all new to me because I knew jack about George Sand). *I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher through NetGalley. This in no way affects the honesty of the following review, as I am ungrateful and tacky.*

swansoffifthavenueTruman Capote, renowned author, was an odd, though charming fellow transplanted from small town Alabama to high glamour New York City. Diminutive and charismatic, he managed to collect a bevy of beautiful and impossibly wealthy Manhattan socialites as his inner circle in the 50s and 60s. Chief among them was the seemingly flawless Babe Paley, wife of CBS mogul Bill Paley. Babe and Truman had an intense friendship based on a mutual appreciation of beauty, fashion, glamour, and gossip. In a tale full of intrigue, scandal, immense wealth, and ultimate betrayal, Truman and Babe’s story will go down in infamy.

High society always boggles my mind. I am Midwestern and tacky in the extreme, I simply cannot fathom the amount of money Truman and his swans were running around with. I found the lifestyle these folks were living impossibly glamorous, and I must admit the gossip and scandal tickled the bit of me intrigued by such things. I also totally cracked up when Slim kept going on and on and on about the time she spent with Hemingway. Everyone was all “OMG Slim, shut up already.” And I was all “Haaaaaaaaa! I don’t much care for Hemingway’s writing so this is extra funny to me!” (Please, let’s not roast Katie alive for the Hemingway confession, okay?) Truman Capote was a larger than life persona, like whoa. Do I love him and empathize with him? Do I want to punch him in his smug face? Is it possible to feel all these things at the same time?! And how do I feel about Babe Paley? It’s all so complicated!

If you’d like to revisit a bygone era, Mad Men style, definitely give this book a go. If you like Truman Capote, you should totally read this. If you find yourself having difficulty rustling up sympathy for the rich and famous, maybe don’t read this. Or. No. Read this anyway. Even you cynics will find it satisfying, methinks.

Talk to me, Bookworms! Do any of you follow celebrity gossip? Do you ever wonder just what goes on behind the fancy parties?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Oct 06

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

Chick Lit, Historical Fiction 6

Howdy Bookworms!

I’ve been reading a lot of spooky novels to get me in the mood for Halloween (I’ll tell you all about it, of course, in due time.) Because I’ve been so deep in the dark and broody I decided to lighten things up a bit by picking up The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg. The last Fannie Flagg novel I read, I Still Dream About You (review) was kind of disappointing. It was fine, but it didn’t have enough of that “I’m happy to be alive” vibe that I’ve come to expect from her novels. I’m a glutton for the warm fuzzies. Suffice it to say that I was MORE than fulfilled by The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.

allgirlfillingstationlastreunionMrs. Sookie Poole has finally married off the last of her three daughters and is recovering from wedding overload. Just as she and her husband prepare for some R&R, Sookie’s world is rocked by a registered letter informing her that all is not as she expected it was in her family’s past. All her life, Sookie has been failing to live up to the impossible expectations of her formidable/eccentric/overbearing mother, Lenore Krackenberry. Lenore’s fixation on Southern gentility and the family silver perplex and exhaust Sookie, but she good-naturedly puts up with her mother’s airs. When Sookie receives her surprising package, Lenore’s behaviors confuse her more than ever. Determined to learn more about her family, Sookie embarks on an unexpected journey.

Sookie’s quest to uncover her family’s secrets leads her on a cross country trek and into a time and place she’d never imagined. Namely, a large Polish family in 1940s Wisconsin. Told half in present day Alabama and half in WWII era Wisconsin, this book was an absolute treat. I’m sure a large part of my affection for this book comes from the Midwestern setting and the Polish family. Technically I grew up in Illinois and technically I’m not Polish, BUT the Chicago area (where I grew up) has a ginormous Polish population. (Fun fact: I once asked a couple of the immigrant girls I went to high school with to teach me how to swear in Polish. They demurred and taught me the names of fruit instead, assuming that even if I tried to use them in a violent fashion at worst I’d sound like a crazed woman obsessed with produce. At least I wouldn’t offend anyone who spoke the language. Probably.) With a colorful cast of characters in each time and place, the Fannie Flagg I’ve come to love was represented fabulously. Historical fiction, contemporary fiction, warm fuzzies, and polka abound. If you need a pick-me-up, you need to pick up The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Talk to me, Bookworms! Do any of y’all know how to polka? I don’t actually know how to, myself, but sometimes I do anyway. Evidence:

I'm dancing with my brother-in-law's mom who actually DOES know how to polka. She tolerated my nonsense beautifully.

I’m dancing with my brother-in-law’s mom who actually DOES know how to polka. She tolerated my nonsense beautifully.

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Sep 10

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Audio Books, Historical Fiction 4

Greetings, Bookworms!

You’ll probably recall my giant rant about Scribd changing up its audio book program. As a result, I scoured my library for the oodles of expiring titles and prioritized those I simply couldn’t live without hearing before they turned into pumpkins. I’ve been meaning to read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton for quite a while, and I’m so glad I decided to check this one out. Not only was it a great story, but the incomparable Davina Porter narrated (she’s the one who reads all the Outlander books and is beyond amazing.) Yay audio books! Boo Scribd for bursting my bubble! (I’m totally still bitter, Scribd!)

theminiaturistNella Oortman is a mere 18 years old when she arrives in Amsterdam, the newly minted bride of merchant Johannes Brandt.  While Nella is thrilled to leave her rural home for the excitement of the big city, she soon discovers that her marriage isn’t going to be what she expected. Johannes is incredibly distant, though when he does interact with Nella he is kind. His sister Marin, however, is even less welcoming.

Set adrift in an unfamiliar city, Nella is completely unmoored. Things begin to change when Johannes presents Nella with an unusual gift: a cabinet sized replica of their house. Nella is both intrigued and mildly insulted. I mean, a doll house?! That’s somewhat less than romantic, and kind of weird, actually. Nevertheless, Nella enlists the services of a mysterious local miniaturist in order to furnish the house and finds herself pulled into the inner circle of the Brandt household and its secrets quite by accident.

The cover art for this novel is genuinely representative of this book. It’s a pretty piece of historical fiction if there ever was one, and the narration of Davina Porter makes it even more magical. I found the story fascinating and loved the look inside the Brandt family. 17th Century Amsterdam was NOT the sort of place you wanted to be seen as different, that’s for darn sure. While I enjoyed the novel, I really wish there had been a few loose ends tied up, particularly in reference to the title character, but all in all, it was quite a ride. If historical fiction is your jam, The Miniaturist is certainly worth a read!

Talk to me Bookworms! Are any of you into tiny things? I’ve seen some impressive work done with miniatures, but I lack the patience to create my own and the funds to get into the hobby buying ready made. I’d love to hear from any budding miniaturists out there!

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Sep 08

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

Asia, Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 4

Good Day, Bookworms!

It probably says troubling things about my character that I love hooker books so ding dang much, but I do, I so so do. The circumstances that lead young women into lives of prostitution are endlessly fascinating, and it’s a profession that transcends time and culture. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this revelation comes as no surprise. If you’re new here, I really dig books about prostitutes. From a cultural perspective, not a porn-ish one, in case that wasn’t obvious. This is a long weird intro, so I should get to the point! Today we’re talking about The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry. *I received a complimentary digital copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. It is not at all like prostitution because there is zero promise of a favorable review (or any review) involved. That said, the way to my heart is through hooker books, so. Yeah.*

thecourtesanThe Courtesan is the fictionalized account of an actual historical figure, one Sai Jinhua. The novel opens with the execution of Jinhua’s beloved father, an unjust punishment for political dissent. At merely seven years old, she is left in the care of her stepmother (her mother having passed away before the book begins) and unceremoniously sold to a brothel. Though Jinhua suffers the horrors of foot binding and forced prostitution, she finds kinship with the brothel’s maid. Eventually Jinhua’s fortunes change as she is purchased (again) this time to live as a concubine to a wealthy diplomat. She goes on to accompany him on a lengthy trip abroad in Europe, through Austria-Hungary (you know, back when it was an empire?), Prussia (back before it was Germany), and Russia (back when Romanovs were still Czar-ing it up.) I was pretty stoked to see that another famous historical figure made an appearance in this novel, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whom I feel like I know rather well after reading Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter (review). Worlds colliding all up in this piece.

This book kind of tore my guts out, in any number of instances. I mean, how could it not? There were times I cried for Jinhua and times I wanted to give her a good smack. The fact that she lived such a large life in a time and place where women’s lives tended to be secluded was fascinating. As with any piece of historical fiction based on a real person, I have no doubt that many liberties were taken for dramatic effect, but it all swirled together into a rather lovely package. If you’re like me and dig hooker books, The Courtesan would make an excellent addition to your collection.

Talk to me, Bookworms! Do you like it when real historical figures make cameos in books?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

 

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Jul 06

Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway

Asia, Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 11

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

I hope all of you in the US had a safe and enjoyable 4th of July weekend. I know I did. I read TWO BOOKS! I know. It’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury of pure binge reading with no real obligations and it was glorious. The first of the books I devoured was Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway. Two of Dilloway’s earlier books, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns (review) and How to Be an American Housewife (review) were winners for me, so I was stoked when the publisher emailed me with an offer to read and review her latest book. *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This in no way influences the content of my review, though it does influence my ability to pass books along to friends and family. Yay for that.*

sisters of heart and snowDrew and Rachel Snow are sisters with a strained relationship. Rachel is a married mother of two in suburbia. A rather surprising outcome given that her wild teenage antics led to her being expelled from her childhood home. Drew is a bit of a drifter, a musician who follows her passion but never quite manages a semblance of adult stability. The girls haven’t been especially close thanks to the familial rift, but they’re thrown back into each other’s lives when their mother, a Japanese immigrant, begins to suffer from dementia. Though she requires constant care, while she was still lucid, Hikari awarded her elder daughter Rachel power of attorney, enraging her douchebag father, Killian.

During one of Rachel’s visits to the nursing home, Hikari asks Rachel to locate a book she kept in her sewing room. The book and its contents lead Rachel and Drew on a journey back into each other’s lives and shed light on their mother’s difficult past. The book tells the story of Tomoe Gozen, a badass lady samurai in twelfth century Japan, an unlikely tale that resonates across time.

You guys, I love me some Margaret Dilloway! Her inclusion of the badass lady samurai was just the icing on the cake. Drew and Rachel’s relationship was beautifully rendered. The crazy Snow family dynamic was masterfully portrayed even though I wanted to PUMMEL Killian. OMG. PUMMEL. Is it okay to want to pummel a very old man in a walker? I don’t care, he’s fictional and so are my punches. But I hate him. Luckily his awfulness didn’t rub off on his daughters. Long story short? You should probably read Sisters of Heart and Snow.

Talk to me Bookworms. How often do you want to punch fictional characters? Is this a thing that happens to other people?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will make a small commission.*

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Jun 22

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

Historical Fiction 15

Howdy Bookworms!

Remember once upon a time when we read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for The Fellowship of the Worms? And it was wonderful? Well. I was browsing NetGalley recently when I noticed that one of the authors of that charming book, Annie Barrows, had another offering coming up called The Truth According to Us. My requesting finger got all twitchy and I asked the publishing czars if I could pretty please have an advanced digital copy of the novel. They said yes, because they are very nice. *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley for review consideration. The integrity of this review will be compromised by nothing except my limitations as a non professional reviewer and general weirdo.*

thetruthaccordingtousA depression era debutante named Layla attempts to break away from the shackles of her privileged life by accepting a job with the Federal Writer’s Project. It’s a bit of a scandal for a girl from a wealthy background to take on a relief position, but Layla has a thing or 10 she wants to prove. She’s assigned to write the history of Macedonia, West Virginia, a far cry from her metropolitan DC stomping grounds. She boards with the enigmatic Romeyn family. The Romeyns were once prominent in town, but scandal and tragedy have plagued their name for decades. A colorful cast of characters provide Layla with ample material to complete her project and weave themselves into the fabric of her life. (If you now have the jingle for the cotton commercials stuck in your head, I’m not even sorry. That is catchy as heck.)

You guys, I have all the mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to love it, I really did, but it just felt kind of disjointed. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been tired lately and I kept dozing off while reading before bed, but I had a hard time keeping things straight. It felt like some of the characters were thrown in as an afterthought and never fully developed. It wasn’t a bad book by any means. Jottie was a delight, and who wouldn’t love precocious little Willa? Still though, I’m left wondering if I’d have had a higher opinion of the book if Annie Barrows didn’t have so much to live up to. I feel like she lost a bit of the magic she had in writing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Talk to me Bookworms! Have you ever read a book that you didn’t completely adore but couldn’t put your finger on why? 

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Jun 01

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 13

Greetings Bookworms,

If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you’ll probably know that I have a penchant for what I lovingly refer to as “hooker books.” That’s right, kids, I love a good book about prostitution. Not in a pornographic way, but a historical fiction way. I find them absolutely fascinating to the point where I made a list of them while discussing the brilliant Emma Donoghue’s book, Astray. To my astonishment, EMMA FRIGGIN DONOGHUE read my post. Then she left a comment in which she recommended I read Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Of course, it took me almost 3 years to get around to reading it, but I finally did, and wahooooooo hooker books!

crimsonpetalandthewhiteSugar is a 19 year old prostitute in Victorian England. She was forced into the world’s oldest profession by her mother (of all people) and spends her free time penning revenge fantasy novels. Her life takes an interesting turn one night when she meets up and coming perfume magnate William Rackham. Rackham soon becomes obsessed with Sugar and pays to keep her at his personal disposal. Sugar’s rise in fortune lands her in a new world- one very different yet nearly as dangerous as the one she’s just left.

The Crimson Petal and the White was a big, fat chunkster. It was quite good, if you like hooker books, but it wasn’t the speediest of reads. It had other perks for me, of course. On Facebook, I saw a friend discussing how multi-layered sheets and waterproof pads on crib mattresses are a life saver for late night blowouts. Whipping off the top sheet once a child spews vile secretions is apparently much less trouble than remaking a crib in the middle of the night. Obviously, I had to chime in that I’d heard great things about the method… In a book about a Victorian era prostitute. Because you KNOW Sugar totes used that method in her back alley days. I’m pretty lucky in that my friends aren’t easily offended when I inadvertently compare their children to prostitutes, but I wouldn’t recommend the habit, as a general rule.

Talk to me, Bookworms! What’s your most recent incident of spurting out an inappropriate book factoid?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Apr 16

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Historical Fiction 19

Bonjour Bookworms,

Sometimes songs get stuck in my head and it’s a book’s fault. Occasionally, it’s because a song is mentioned in a book. Sometimes it’s because the song and the book just go together. Sometimes it’s because they share a title. I probably should have been kind of suspicious of Elizabeth Berg’s new novel, The Dream Lover, when it succeeded in getting a Mariah Carey tune stuck in my head. My 10 year old self didn’t make up a dance routine to “Dreamlover” or anything. That would definitely did not happen… *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley for review consideration. I pledge on my right to wear pants that the following opinions are uninfluenced by the fact that I didn’t have to purchase this book.*

dreamloverThe Dream Lover is about scandalous 19th century novelist George Sand. She not only took on a man’s name for her nom de plume (rather a fad in those days. Just ask the Bronte sisters… Erm… “Bell” “brothers”) but she also dressed like a man and had extra marital affairs while hobnobbing with Paris’s intellectual elite. As one does. The most famous female writer of her time, Sand had an impressive list of friends and lovers including Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and probably all the other famous writers, actors, artists, and musicians in Europe at the time. She was terribly popular. Salons, you know. And not the kind in which I have my hair dyed. The fancy kind with the thinking and the art and the discourse. Elizabeth Berg takes on Sand’s story from a first person perspective and tackles love, family, loneliness, and companionship.

This book sounded like it would be everything I loved. Ladies succeeding in a man’s world? Celebrity name dropping? Historical fiction? Cross dressing? It seemed like the perfect book for me. Until it wasn’t. I’ll admit I wasn’t at all familiar with George Sand’s story and I’ve not read any of her work (though I totally dig the work of some of her pals.) I think, for me, things went badly because it was written in the first person. It got very introspective, which is incredibly difficult to pull off when you’re writing about a historical figure. I found the life of George Sand fascinating, but I think I would have enjoyed reading about it more as non-fiction. (I know! Who is writing this, and what have you done with Katie, right?!) I struggled getting into this book and never really hit a stride. To be completely honest, I very nearly didn’t bother finishing the thing. I managed to finish (because DNF guilt), but I’m afraid The Dream Lover simply wasn’t the book for me. Just because the book wasn’t a winner for me, though, doesn’t mean it won’t be for you, my darlings. If you are a big fan of George Sand, introspection, and 19th century-esque prose, run, do not walk, and check out The Dream Lover.

Tell me something, Bookworms. At what point do you  give up on reading a book that isn’t ringing your bells? If I’ve made it to the halfway point I try my darnedest to finish it, but I’d like to know how long y’all give it before throwing in the towel.

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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