Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Sunday Review: Fiction about Argentina’s Dirty War

For those who don’t know the history of the Dirty War, I am going to begin with some background. (If you already know, skip to the fifth paragraph.) From 1974 to 1983, Argentina conducted a Dirty War that consisted of state terrorism against its citizens. The government hunted down political dissidents, leftist guerillas, socialists—and any students, intellectuals, and activists the junta feared might become threats. 

People were snatched from school, work, home, the street. They were tortured for information and for punishment. They were beaten, shot, and buried in mass graves. They were drugged and thrown from airplanes, still alive, over open water. Even today, they are known as los desaparecidos, the disappeared. Pregnant women who were taken were held until they gave birth and then disposed of; their children were given to government officials or military officers who wanted to adopt. 

An estimated 30,000 Argentinians were disappeared, and an estimated 500 babies were stolen. Many of the grieving families still have no answers. Many of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity were pardoned. Not until the 2000s did the Argentine government revoke the amnesty laws and begin prosecution. 

Because of my work on world history textbooks, I’ve known about the Dirty War for decades, but not until recently did it occur to me to read fiction about it. 

In the last two weeks, I have listened to audiobooks of two of them: On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark and Perla by Carolina de Robertis. 

Purely by accident, I chose books that have several plot points and themes in common. Both have main characters who are young women, born during the Dirty War and raised in families that are part of the Argentinian elite. Both Paloma and Perla begin knowing little about their country’s terrible past. Both find romantic partners who help them learn the shocking history their parents hid from them—and their families’ own roles in the Dirty War. 

And yet, the two books are also quite different. On a Night of a Thousand Stars is the more straightforward narrative. It’s a dual timeline novel. One story focuses on Valentina, a young woman who attends college and then begins working as an architect during the opening years of the government campaign of terror. The other story, set twenty years later, focuses on Paloma, a young woman who is raised by Argentinian expats in New York City. Because her knowledge of Argentina has been gleaned mostly from visits to her grandfather, she starts out understanding little about the Dirty War, but she makes some discoveries that motivate her to find out what if any role her father played in combatting the oppression. Paloma’s father, who was once Valentina’s lover, is the link between the two time periods. 

Perla, on the other hand, has elements of magical realism, which felt entirely appropriate for the South American setting. The main character is the daughter of a naval officer, which is a huge red flag to the knowledgeable reader that her family has dark secrets to hide. Perla’s lover, an investigative journalist, nudges her to question her parents, but she can’t—and her inner conflict causes her to break up with him. Then, while her parents are away, she is visited by a mysterious man, who smells of rotting debris on a beach and who constantly sheds water on the parlor floor. This uncanny intruder is the catalyst that helps Perla intuit her past. 

I enjoyed both novels. My personal favorite was Perla, which was more literary and, for me, better conveyed the tragedy of Argentina’s past. But for readers who don’t enjoy magical realism, I can recommend On a Night of a Thousand Stars without hesitation. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: The Social Graces by Renée Rosen

The Social Graces tells the story of the rivalry between two women, a generation apart, who led New York Society in the late 1800s.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was known as THE Mrs. Astor. If you weren’t among the 400 socialites invited to her annual ball or her summer clambake in Newport, RI, you simply weren’t part of the elite. And people with “new money”—the railroad barons, etc.—didn’t have a prayer of receiving one of her coveted invitations. That is, until determined, clever Alva Vanderbilt came along.

This sharp dichotomy between old and new money is tremendously ironic. The founder of the Astor fortune, the first John Jacob Astor, was hardly a cultivated person. I describe him this way in my first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Astor was a short man with dark blond hair, drooping brown eyes, and a large pointed nose. He spoke English with a German accent, and his manners were nearly as rough as the fur trappers who had made his fortune, but Betsy liked him because they shared the traits of ambition, determination, and practicality.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like a novel about two wealthy, privileged women competing to be the queen of New York society. However, I thought that, in their separate narratives (each has third-person point-of-view chapters threaded throughout the book), Rosen dramatized enough of the heartbreaks they endured and the life lessons they learned to convey their essential humanity. Both women make terrible mistakes with regard to their children, but in this portrayal at least, I never doubted their good intentions. (I’ve read enough other accounts of Alva Vanderbilt to wonder if Rosen was perhaps being too kind.)

Rosen made one other choice in the novel that I absolutely loved. Two of my favorite pieces of literature—the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson—share an unusual characteristic: both are narrated by the collective voice of the community in which the main character lives. I have always felt this modern version of the Greek chorus adds a unique perspective and have wished that more authors would make use of the technique.

Well, Rosen has a third voice to her narrative, in addition to the focusing closely on the lives of each woman. She has chapters narrated by “society” that give the collective opinion on the actions of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. The last word, so to speak. This device reveals more of the broader impact of the two women, and I found it very effective.

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Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, fiction, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerry Maher

This historical novel tells the story of Sylvia Beach, founder and owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company English-language bookstore in Paris. Although this is a single-timeline novel, there are a couple of important threads to the story: Beach’s love affair with the French bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier and her interactions with the writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, most importantly James Joyce.

Beach knew Joyce at the time he was writing his masterpiece Ulysses. Excerpts had been published in literary journals, and Joyce’s frank depictions of bodily functions and human sexuality caused American officials to deem it pornography, making it a crime to sell or even send through the U.S. mails. Beach believed strongly in Joyce’s art, so she decided to publish the novel in Paris, even though she had never published anything before.

As portrayed in the novel, the relationship between Beach and Joyce is tremendously complicated. Joyce is grateful, in his own way, but he also has the kind of entitled personality that just accepts the things that other people do for him. One of the interesting questions of the story is this: does Joyce take advantage of Beach, or does Beach fail to stand up for herself? Or is their relationship an unhealthy combination in which both are true?

Other prominent literary figures wander through the pages, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Beach was more than just a bookstore owner; she promoted the groundbreaking literature of the time, and many people felt that she played a pivotal role in nurturing their careers.

Beach’s relationship with Monnier is beautifully depicted. The two women have a deep and abiding love, but as they live through legal hassles, economic hard times, and World War II, the stressors they experience affect them in different ways, and they begin to grow apart. I never lost my sympathy for either of them even when I wanted their choices to be different.

This is an excellent novel for lovers of Paris and of American letters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, France, Historical fiction, Paris, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

This is the first book of Fowler’s I’ve read, and I didn’t know what to expect. I checked it out of the library because learning more about the famous, or infamous, Booth family intrigued me.

For those who don’t know, John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln, was a younger son of a famous family of 19th-century Anglo-American actors. Their father, Junius Brutus Booth, was highly acclaimed as was John’s older brother Edwin. Another brother, Junius Jr., was also an actor although not as highly regarded. I already knew from past research that during the Civil War Edwin actually saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert—an event that can truly be described as stranger than fiction. So I wondered what other surprising things I might learn about the Booths.

The book is divided into sections offering the point of view of different members of the family, including sisters Rosalie and Asia and brother Edwin. In the author’s note at the end, Fowler tells us that although Rosalie existed, almost nothing is known about her—her existence in the surviving family records is summed up by the repeated epithet “poor Rose”—so that narrator is an almost entirely fictional creation. In Fowler’s hands, she is old-fashioned, less gifted than her creative siblings, unusually close to her mother, haunted by the memory of the many brothers and sisters who died young, and in constant pain from worsening scoliosis.

Asia is devoted to her family, particularly her brothers. To her, being a Booth is everything, so she plans to chronicle the careers of her thespian father and brothers. Yet, she is unconventional in her own way and provides an entirely different perspective on the Booth tribe than her much older sister does. Asia is the one who most represents what it is like to adore a relative who later commits a monstrous public crime.

Edwin is the Booth most haunted by the legacy of the family patriarch. As a boy, he was charged with accompanying his father on tour and trying (impossibly) to keep him from drinking. Edwin longs without much hope for Junius Sr. to acknowledge him as the heir best equipped to carry on the Booth acting legacy. These family obligations and his own personal failings oppress Edwin for years, along with a growing rift with John, who becomes increasingly radical as the war marches to its bloody end.

This then is the family that produces the assassin who became perhaps the most vilified American of the late 1800s. The book sustained my interest throughout; the shifting points of view provide sometimes contradictory opinions that help show what a tangle it can be to sort out what goes into the making of a killer.

My main complaint, however, is that the novel felt to me more like an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional journey. I remained largely unmoved even by the end of the story, and for that reason, I feel that the book falls short of the great novel it might have been.

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Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s latest novel is a World War II story with current relevance: it is about Mila Pavlichenko, a young woman from Kyiv, Ukraine, who gives up her quiet life as a mother, librarian, and grad student writing a dissertation on the history of Ukraine to help protect her homeland against brutal invaders. She becomes such a proficient sniper—with 309 official kills to her name and many more unrecorded—that she becomes a national hero known as Lady Death.

Mila is sent on a goodwill tour to the United States, where she develops an unlikely friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (which really happened) and gets involved unwittingly in a plot to assassinate FDR (a fictional device with enough historical precedent to be plausible).

This is one of my favorite novels by Quinn. Instead of the multiple perspectives / time lines she has employed so often, this novel sticks with Mila throughout, and I thought the laser focus was well suited to a story about a sniper who had a legendary “diamond eye” with a rifle sight.

I also enjoyed the journey Mila takes from a frustrated, somewhat helpless young woman, unable to stand up against her domineering and thoughtless older husband, to a military officer who knows her abilities and is able to win the respect of the men under her command.

The detail about the sniper’s craft and the descriptions of the settings also serve to make this a riveting tale.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century, World War II

Sunday Review: Lady Odelia’s Secret by Jane Steen

I enjoyed the first novel in this series, so I was glad when I learned that Jane Steen had written a sequel. When I found out that part of the story dealt with Victorian artists, I was even happier. I especially enjoy novels that touch on the lives of painters. Sir Geraint’s subject matter is interesting, and I found it easy to visualize his paintings from Steen’s descriptions. 

In some ways, this is closer to a historical cozy than a hard-boiled murder mystery, but the novel doesn’t veer too far in that direction. It’s doesn’t dwell on the cute, quaint, eccentric features of the setting that so many cozies do. Instead, it’s as concerned with the intertwined relationships in the Scott-DeQuincy family as the crimes that disrupt their lives. Lady Helena is a very likable character—the overlooked baby of an aristocratic family, forced by the death of her beloved husband to develop a stronger backbone and more independent spirit than she might have otherwise. 

Odelia is Helena’s much older and favored sister, who spends most of her time in London working as an artist. The secret referred to in the title puts enormous strain on the sisters’ relationship and forces Helena to make choices about her values even as she tries discover who is stalking her sister with malicious intent. 

I’d be remiss not to mention that Fortier, the intelligent and attractive French doctor, is back, and Helena learns a bit more about the problem marriage that has made their growing attraction an impossibility. I’m sure that readers will meet him again in future installments. 

I recommend this book without reservation as well as its prequel. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, cozy mystery, Crime, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: And by Fire by Evie Hawtrey

Evie Hawtrey’s debut And by Fire crackles with as much energy as a well-tended blaze, one that Hawtrey maintains control of from start to finish. 

There are two related storylines in this novel. In 1666, Margaret Dove, lady-in-waiting to the queen of England, wishes she dared pursue a forbidden life, becoming a female scientist and casting off her noble heritage to marry the man she loves, King Charles II’s fireworks maker. When the Great Fire of London breaks out, the two lovers survive but lose track of a friend in the freak explosion that ruins St. Paul’s during the conflagration. What they discover when they seek to find out if their friend is alive or dead casts a possible shadow over the reputation of one of the most prominent men of the age.

In the present day, DI Nigella Parker specializes in cases involving fire. When a serial arsonist begins to set fires in London, hoping to win fame for himself and for a historical figure he believes was overlooked, she and her partner DI Colm O’Leary must brush aside any awkwardness from a past relationship and find the firebug before his crimes escalate. 

The book is fast-paced but with enough character development to make the protagonists seem fully human. Highly recommended.

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Sunday Review: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis specializes in writing historic fiction about well-known buildings in New York City, and I have loved several of her novels. This time she focuses on Grand Central Station. The Masterpiece is a dual-timeline story set in the late 1920s and the mid-1970s.

The 1920s timeline focuses on Clara Darden, a young artist from Arizona who came to New York to study at the Grand Central School of Art. (Did you know there was once an art school on one of the upper floors of Grand Central? I didn’t.) Now working there as an instructor, she has to fight against two kinds of bigotry—sexism and the ingrained belief that illustrators are less-talented and less-important than “serious painters.” She meets and becomes involved with two very different men: a wealthy young poet and a fiery experimental painter from Armenia. Little do any of them know that the high life of the 20s can’t last forever; the economy is heading for a crash that will turn the country upside down and make art a dispensable luxury in a grim new world of standing in soup lines and making do with frayed, years-old clothing.

The 1970s story focuses on Virginia Clay, a women who is recently divorced and struggling to support herself and her daughter. She fails to qualify for the secretarial job she interviews for and ends up working at the Grand Central information booth. By this time, the depot is dirty and neglected—no longer the beautifully decorated showplace it was in the 1920s—and it’s home to drug addicts and other unsavory types, causing passengers to spend as little time there as possible. The building is in danger of being torn down, with only the lower sections incorporated into amuch larger structure.

One day, Virginia happens upon the abandoned art school and discovers a long-forgotten painting that speaks to her deeply. It also reminds her of a painting she saw in a magazine: a piece of art by the painter using the pseudonym Clyde, which is about to go on auction for a fortune.

The art school is the obvious tie between the two storylines, but as Virginia works to both save Grand Central and uncover the truth about the painting she found, more links between the two stories emerge. I found this a very enjoyable read.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March

This novel begins with an interesting premise: Captain Jim Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian officer whose English father is unknown, is in a military hospital recovering from injuries he received in a violent skirmish near Karachi. For a long time after being wounded, he does little but reread the cases of his hero Sherlock Holmes. Then one day, a newspaper article about a shocking event in Bombay—two Indian women from a prominent Parsee family fall to their deaths from the high clock tower—captures his attention. Adi, the husband of one of the women and cousin of the other, is quoted as saying he feels left behind. Which is precisely how Captain Jim feels about surviving the battle in which many of his men were killed.

On impulse, Jim approaches the grieving man and is hired to investigate the case. The ensuing months of digging for answers forces Jim to deal with the complex rules of the upper classes, the troubled waters of India’s political conflicts, and several physical dangers and endurance tests.

The mystery is interesting enough to keep the reader going. It takes a twisting path that goes in several unexpected directions. The characters are engaging; it is especially interesting that many of them are Parsee, an Indian minority I hadn’t encountered in fiction before. The setting is one I usually enjoy—I’ve read a fair number of Indian novels over the years—but I found that this novel didn’t feel quite as rich with sensory description as most of the others. Even so, I took enough pleasure in the book to give it a solid four-star rating.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Indian fiction

Sunday Review: Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

For the most part, I’m weary of all the historical novels set during the world wars, but once in a while, the premise of one will intrigue me enough to give it a chance. Paris Never Leaves You is such a novel. The story is told with the popular device of dual timelines—New York publishing during the 1950s and World War II in Paris—but it feels less disjointed than many such novels because one main character anchors both periods.

In the WWII storyline, Charlotte, a French war widow with a very young daughter, runs a bookstore with a friend during the German occupation of Paris. When the friend is arrested, Charlotte must survive on her own. She reluctantly forms a relationship with a German officer—a frequent bookshop customer—who can provide much-needed food for her child, but it is relationship riddled with danger for both of them.

During the later storyline, Charlotte is trying to live a low-key life in New York, doing her work as an editor and raising her teenage daughter Vivi. However, Charlotte faces an unexpected challenge when Vivi, who knows that in the last days of the war, she and her mother were imprisoned in a camp for French Jews, develops a sudden interest in exploring her Jewish heritage despite her mother’s agnosticism.

I’m reluctant to say more because the novel contains some surprise revelations—portrayals of survival strategies I haven’t seen in other novels set in this time period. Suffice it to say that it deals with the short-term and long-term costs of making moral compromises to stay alive.

For me, the book is a solid 4-star read. Not all of the relationships ring completely true to me, but they were plausible enough to keep reading and enjoy other aspects of the story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century, World War II