Blogs: Historical fiction

Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.

Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine  and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.  

Cover for The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard

Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige.  But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited  American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple.  So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story  "Trail of the Apache"  which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again.  The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white  stand out from their stereotypes.

If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.

“History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them.” ― Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller 
 
I happily Marathon book jacketread non-fiction books about the Oregon Trail, but otherwise I like to absorb most of my history lessons via fiction. Fiction gives you setting, context, details and a snapshot of 'a day in the life'. It makes history into what Jodi says: a human story. And thanTemplar book jacketk goodness there are quite a lot of writers and artists bringing these stories to life as graphic novels!
 
Marathon by Boaz Yakin shows the life of Eucles, the Athenian messenger who ran from Sparta to Athens and prevented the fall of Greece to the Persian empire. The art is a good match for the gruelling story. Templar by Jordan Mechner is based on the apocalyptic end of an entire knightly order when the king of France arrested 15,000 of these crusaders. Pretty dark, but also has a bit of a 'heist movie' feel to it. Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang are brother and sister works that show opposite sides of China's 1898 Boxer Rebellion. It is a dangerous time for Chinese Christians, and seeing how Yang gets us to empathize with opposing characters is a neat trick. 
 
You like? We have lots more.

I found  Dan Simmons' The Terror  positively ripping, a great big adventure story filled with interesting characters-- men of the sea testing themselves against the many, many things the Arctic throws at them. Then it changed, and it started to remind me of a book I read once about the Donner party. And then it changed again and became something unexpected and unusual, and I don't want to talk about that too much and spoil it for you.

The Terror is based on the real expedition of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which in the 1840s disappeared in the Arctic on a doomed search for the Northwest Passage. There's not much sailing in The Terror, as a the ships get frozen into the ice pretty early on and stay there, the result of several exceptionally cold winters. Things start out pretty bad-- Franklin, the commander of the expedition, is something of a fool who fails to respect the Arctic as he should, the canned food is tainted and spoiling, there are no animals to be found by the hunters, crewmen are coming down with scurvy, and it’s unbelievably cold-- like -50 degrees Fahrenheit cold. The ship is crowded and the darkness is constant. And then things get worse. Something-- an enormous polar bear?-- is stalking the crew. And the ships, frozen in the ice for years, are starting to crack up under the pressure.

This is not for the faint of heart-- it’s almost a thousand pages long (or 22 CDs), and contains vast amounts of research about nineteenth century ships, polar ice, the early days of canned food, Inuit mythology, and more. But while I can’t believe that human beings actually signed up for these expeditions, I  just loved the time I spent in the world of this book. The writing is good,  the plot is thrilling, and it’s so compelling that I couldn’t stop listening. Oh, and if you are considering listening to the audiobook, as I did, you should know that the voice actor is excellent, as well, with a plummy English accent and great ability to express characters of different ages, classes and dispositions.

This list will provide you with even more opportunities to head into the cold during the hot summer days that will be coming back soon.

The Illusion of Separateness book jacketOn a muddy World War II battlefield a young soldier happens upon the enemy, shoving a gun in the terrified man’s mouth. In 2010 Los Angeles a newly arrived nursing home resident drops dead at his welcome party. In 1960’s rural France a young boy excitedly shows his classmate the ruins of a burned-out German plane. A pair of young lovers has their picture taken at Coney Island in 1942. A blind woman in the Hamptons in 2005 yearns for someone to love.

What do these people have in common? Nothing at first glance but then again that is the illusion of separateness. In a world that is vast and often alienating it is comforting to think we are somehow all connected – that like the idea of six degrees of separation we don’t have to go too far to find our footing or to appreciate the intricate twists and turns that got us here. More than a series of linked short stories, Simon Van Booy’s delicate novel is a world slowly revealed, where discoveries are made, connections are forged and the reader is part detective, part voyeur and part conspirator.

Beautifully written, with fascinating characters readers will grow increasingly attached to, The Illusion of Separateness depicts a world that will stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Portland author Nicole Mones’ novels are so interesting. You get well-developed characters, a bit of romance, and good writing, but you also get to share in her wealth of knowledge including, but not limited to, all things Chinese. Ms. Mones owned a textile business for many years that required her to spend a lot of time in China. Between that and the research she's done for her books, she is such an expert on China that she’s now a member of  the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Her novel, A Cup of Light is full of information about Chinese porcelain, and The Last Chinese Chef offers an introduction to the fascinating philosophy that guides Chinese cuisine.

Her new book, Night in Shanghai, introduced me to an astonishingly interesting and vivid city. Shanghai in the 1930s was an open port, with a thriving International District. It was full of money, jazz clubs, dangerous women and political intrigue. Communists jockeyed for position against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party, powerful crime gangs fought each other, and the Japanese army had long been an increasingly menacing presence in the city. Black American jazz musicians came in multitudes because in China, they could escape from the racism and segregation they left behind in the United States and could earn a fair living. Shanghai also came to be a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, mostly because of one man, Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna. Jews were desperate to flee Austria, but no one was issuing visas for Jews anymore, and they were not allowed to leave without a visa. Shanghai, as an open port, did not require visas, but in order to help thousands of Jews escape, Ho set his staff to creating fake ones, as fast as they could, in spite of the fact that his superiors were ordering him to stop. His heroic actions didn’t do much for his career, but he is still honored in Israel for them.

In this exciting city, a  romance blossoms between Thomas Greene, a classically trained pianist turned jazz musician, and Song, an indentured servant and secret communist.  It’s ever more obvious that World War II is coming, and as Japan allies with Germany against the United States, we wonder if Greene will get out in time, and will Song go with him, or if she’ll stay in China to fight with the communists. And what will happen to all those Jews who have found refuge in Shanghai now that Germany is demanding that the "Jewish Problem" is addressed there?

Mones writes beautifully in this book about music, how it feels to improvise, and how music can change the world. More Portlanders should know about this local author. Give her books a try!

Remember Mary Stewart?  She may be best known for her Merlin Trilogy, which I devoured in school.  Recently however, her other novels have been re-released as rediscovered classics. These rediscovered classics involve a female heroine, an exotic locale, a little bit of mystery, and a gentle romance. They are just the thing for reading whilst on holiday, commuting on mass transit, are something fun and light for those summer days, and cozy enough for a winter evening.  In short, they are just about perfect anytime, anywhere. cover image of Wildfire at Midnight

Several of these novels are now available with new cover designs, but my current favorite is Wildfire at Midnight. A young divorcée from London escapes to a remote hotel in Scotland for a much needed break and discovers that not only has there been a strange murder on the nearby mountain Blaven, but one of the hotel’s guests is none other than her estranged husband. Some holiday!

Just because a mystery is cozy doesn’t mean it isn’t spicy or hot.

BBC mystery series Rosemary and Thyme is a cozy village mystery series that is both spicy AND hot. It stars Felicity Kendal as Rosemary Boxer and Pam Ferris as LauraThyme: women who are too smart and too curious and too feisty to take what any man (or woman) tells them at face value. Rosemary is a college professor specializing in botany and landscaping who got  the boot in favor a male colleague. She describes herself as ‘more bookworm than earthworm’  As for Laura Thyme, her husband left her for a much younger, more shapely woman. “To hell with men” she tells Rosemary, then as an afterthought “although some are lovely…”

Rosemary’s free-lance landscaping jobs give her the opportunity to peer around bushes and trees to listen in on secret conversations. Laura Thyme balances her out with logic and straight forward practicality. Though they are shot at, lied to and run off the road they keep each other’s spirits up with laughter and of course solve the mystery in the end.

Rosemary and Thyme made me think about other crime solving women- on TV and in books too. I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of choices there are. To take a look at what I found check out my list.

Town in Bloom bookjacketIf you are familiar with 101 Dalmatians, then you have at the very least, crossed paths with Dodie Smith for she is the author of that much-loved children’s story. And in the not too distant past, she had a revival of sorts with I Capture the Castle being re-released and made into a film. It is an utterly sweet and charming tale of a young woman who navigates the tricky waters of love and ends up all the more independent and witty. Smith wrote a handful of plays and other novels, each one is a gem in its own right. Long out of print, some of these titles were re-released in 2012 by Corsair Publishers and Multnomah County Library has recently purchased them. They are: The Town in Bloom, The New Moon with the Old, and It Ends with Revelations.  

Of these, I have read The Town in Bloom and can highly recommend it. It is a coming of age story set in 1920s London among the fast-moving theatre crowd. Though the heroine Mouse is in her late teens when the story begins, you also hear from her older self recalling the past with a bit of perspective. And like I Capture the Castle, it is a love story, but with a more adult twist.  Nothing explicit mind you, but the themes of affairs (extramarital or otherwise), marriage, divorce, and a woman making it on her own, are topics that are only increase in appreciation if you’ve got a few years under your belt yourself. Young adult readers may well enjoy it, but it deserves a re-read later on in life. If you like historical fiction set in the jazz age, London, the life of a struggling actor, or a good love story where the heroine comes out loving herself most of all, give it a go.

 

Well, it has happened again - I have fallen in love with a fictional character who lives in a time and a place created out of real history.

Sister Pelagia bookjacketLet me explain.

Sister Pelagia is  the main character in a mystery series written by Boris Akunin.  She is an inquisitive, bespectacled, red-haired nun living in Imperial Russia, trying to observe her faith in peace and harmony with her fellow sisters and the students at the school for girls where she is a headmistress.  But her insatiable curiosity, her stubborn persistence and her penchant for seeing all the details make her a detective without equal. Somehow she always seems to find herself in the middle of a mysterious circumstance: the poisoning of a rare white bulldog, an inexplicable ghost haunting the Hermitage Abbey or a Christ-like prophet who appears to be able to come back from the dead.

Her adventures always begin in Russia but her sleuthing takes her all over the world, from the dark, thick forests of Siberia to the sun drenched land of the Middle East.

With the Sister Pelagia series you get the best of both worlds: the great philosophical questions that Russian authors have always debated: Love, Death, God, Good, Evil;  you also plunge into the depths of a world peopled with extraordinary characters, unorthodox situations and exotic places. Not the least of these is the mystery itself that is interwoven into the story as a living breathing creature.

Writing  in the style and with the plot complexity of Charles Dickens, Russian author Boris Akunin  deals unflinchingly with the attitudes of the time, especially the question of how we treat those who are different, whether by race or class or sexual preference. He doesn't try to softsoap the truth, but tempers it with humor and unusual historical details.

If you like mesmerizing mysteries set in a different time and place with a heroine who won’t give up until she finds the truth, you will love the Sister Pelegia series by Boris Akunin. Start with Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.

 

The House of Special Purpose book jacketIn a tiny Russian village of Kashen, seventeen year-old Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of a bullet meant for the Tsar’s uncle. As a reward for his bravery, Georgy is offered a job working for Tsar Nicholas and his family as the personal bodyguard to young Alexei Romanov. Georgy excels at his job and becomes part of the Tsar’s inner circle. But when Georgy meets and falls in love with the Tsar’s youngest daughter Anastasia, his life is changed forever. Flash forward to 1981, when an aging Georgy is retired, living in London and caring for his cancer-stricken wife Zoya. Told in alternating chapters, these two worlds travel toward their inevitable meeting. Readers get a bird’s eye view of life in imperial Russia, from the glitz and glamour of life in the Winter Palace to the evil influence of the legendary Rasputin and finally to the sad fate of the Romanov family at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

As with many of his other fascinating novels, including Crippen, The Absolutist and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne has once again made history accessible and timeless. In The House of Special Purpose, he takes a much-examined story and makes it fresh and inviting. It is a story of love across sixty-five years of history, and a testament to the power of accident and determination to control our lives.

Pages

Subscribe to