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Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Zorro

Title: Zorro (audiobook)

Author: Isabel Allende

Published: 2005

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: 4 of 5

Isabel Allende’s Zorro could have been titled The Making of Zorro.  Rather than repeating the already-legendary exploits of Zorro, Allende tells the creative and captivating story of how Diego de la Vega became the Zorro we recognize from TV, movies, and books.

The story begins before Diego’s birth in Spanish California and travels to Spain, the Caribbean, and New Orleans as Diego grows and develops his swordsmanship and sense of right and wrong.  Until this book, my exposure to the Zorro legend was limited to the Antonio Banderas films.  Even with that limited background, I was able to see how carefully Allende crafted Diego’s childhood to draw direct links to already-established aspects of his adult career.

This was a very plot-driven book, with adventures and challenges moving the characters and story along.  There is something here for everyone – pirates, warfare, religious conflict, damsels in distress, prison breaks, high seas adventures, disguises, duels, gypsies, and even Napoleon.  It sounds frenetic – and maybe it was – but it kept my full attention through the very last word.

Diego’s development as a champion for social justice raised some interesting themes along the way, but Allende kept even those topics quite light.  I would definitely recommend this as a fun and attention-grabbing book.

I would also recommend the audiobook, especially for a road trip.  A good portion of the book revolves around Diego’s travels, so it would be a perfect compliment to a long car ride.  The narrator, Blair Brown, is one of my favorites and she did an excellent job with this novel.

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about Zorro:

Blogcritics – Book Review: Isabel Allende’s Zorro

Brie – Isabelle Allende’s El Zorro: A Book Review

The Guardian – Behind the Mask

The Independent – Zorro: the Novel, by Isabel Allende, trans Margaret Sayers Peden

MostlyFiction Book Reviews – “Zorro”

NPR – Zorro Comes to Life in Allende’s Latest

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The Book Thief

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Published: 2005

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Rating: 5 of 5 (re-read)

The Book Thief is, hands down, one of my favorite reads.  Ever.  I have been a Book Thief evangelist for the past year, trying to tell everyone I know that they must drop everything and go read it immediately.  Either my book club took pity on me or my sales tactics are improving, because they chose it as our July book.

I imagine most people have already at least seen this book around – for goodness sake, there was a full-page New York Times ad for it several months ago.  I won’t give a full synopsis here, but suffice it to say:

It’s just a small story really, about among other things:

A girl

Some words

An accordionist

Some fanatical Germans

A Jewish fist fighter

And quite a lot of thievery.

All the women in the book group really enjoyed this book.  Each person admitted to crying (many to sobbing), and all had much to say about the book and its characters, themes, messages, and narrator (Death was very popular amongst us).  It was an excellent discussion – if you are looking for your next book club pick, we highly recommend this one!

To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to give too many specifics about what we discussed.  I will note that we launched into a very interesting side conversation about how culpable the German citizens were for the horror done in their own backyard.  Things got slightly heated over this issue, with some people wondering if living in post-World War I Germany was like being an unsuspecting lobster in slowly heating water.  Others argued that enough people knew what was happening early enough to put a stop to things.  Obviously, this is a question that will never be satisfactorily answered.  Along those lines, though, when asked if Hans Hubermann and the other characters were culpable, people were a lot less willing to answer affirmatively.

Perhaps Markus Zusak was so successful with this book because he was able to place the recognizable face of humanity into a truly heinous period in our history.

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about The Book Thief:

5 Minutes for Books – The Book Thief

At Home with Books – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Review

The Book Lady’s Blog – The Book Lady and The Book Thief

Devourer of Books – The Book Thief – Book Review

Fizzy Thoughts – Days of Remembrance and The Book Thief

The New York Times – Stealing to Settle a Score with Life

Out of the Blue – Book Review: The Book Thief

Rhapsody in Books – Sunday Salon – Review of “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

USA Today – ‘The Book Thief’ rises above horrors of war

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Drood

Title: Drood

Author: Dan Simmons

Published: 2009

Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Rating: 2 of 5

I feel I should begin this post with a caveat.  Anyone who knows my reading habits well knows that I am a very serious Charles Dickens fan.  As far as I’m concerned, he is the standard to which all other authors are compared.  One of my best days while studying in London was the day I visited his house (now a museum) and spent the afternoon gaping at his belongings.  So.  Take this under advisement when considering my thoughts about Drood.

Several months ago, I read an article about two new books that attempted to address the many lingering questions behind Dickens’ unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Intrigued, I decided to re-read The Mystery of Edwin Drood and then read the new books to see how they did in solving the real mystery of Edwin Drood.

Drood is narrated by Wilkie Collins (of The Woman in White fame), Dickens’ crony and relative by marriage.  At its core, Drood is a historical thriller set in the last five years of Dickens’ life.  Collins reveals the mysterious character of Drood who haunts Dickens and influences his personal and career decisions.  Full of jealousy and opium, slums and literature, it becomes a wild ride through London’s forgotten tunnels and a bizarre, occultish underworld.

I rated the first book, The Last Dickens, a 1.5 of 5 because the story was thin and the writing needed some serious editing help.  I’m giving Drood slightly more, only because the writing was actually quite well done.  The story and the characters, however, made me want to abandon the book about 300 pages into the tome.  (Yes, tome.  This book was 777 pages long – about 400 pages too many.)

This book should have been titled ‘Collins,’ because it was almost entirely about him, his struggles with opium addiction, and his own growing obsession with Drood and Dickens.  Dickens himself flits in and out of the story and Drood…  Well, Drood becomes a primary character in several occult-centered scenes that I found deeply disturbing and overly done.  I could go on about everything I disliked about this book, but I’ll keep this short:

It was unnecessarily long.  The story repeatedly started and sputtered out for the first 400 pages.  Many of the plot elements were contrived and ridiculous to the point of outright laughter.  And most importantly – the ending, which was the sole chance the book had at redeeming itself, was so dissatisfying that I slammed my book shut in anger.

I imagine that fans of the thriller genre would really enjoy this book.  And people who have less emotional attachment might not feel as cheated as I did by this book.  But for me, I still consider the mystery of Edwin Drood to be fixedly unsolved.

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about Drood:

Allison’s Attic – “DROOD” on the Early Bird Blog Tour

Blacklin’s Reading Room Reviews & More – My Dear Wilkie

Book Chatter and Other Stuff – Review: Drood

Booking Mama – Review: DROOD & Giveaway (includes a clip of Simmons reading from the book)

Bookish Ruth – Book Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

Bookpage – Simmons imagines the spark behind Dickens’ unfinished work

Book Reviews by Bobbie – Book Review of ‘Drood: A Novel (ARC)’

A Bookworm’s World – Drood – Dan Simmons

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore – Review: Drood, by Dan Simmons

Heidenkind’s Hideaway – Drood

The Independent – Drood, by Dan Simmons & The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl

Jenn’s Bookshelf – Review, Giveaway & Blog Tour-Drood, by Dan Simmons

LA Times – ‘Drood’ by Dan Simmons and ‘The Last Dickens’ by Matthew Pearl

My Friend Amy – Blog Tour: Drood by Dan Simmons and a Giveaway! (complete with a personal sketch from Simmons himself)

Old Musty Books – Dan Simmons: Drood A Novel

Perry Web – Drood

The Tome Traveller’s Weblog – Review AND Giveaway: Drood by Dan Simmons

The Washington Post – A Long-Winded Rival to Dickens

We Be Reading – Early Review: Drood

Write for a Reader – Review: Drood

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The Age of Innocence

Title: The Age of Innocence

Author: Edith Wharton

Published: 1920

Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4.5 of 5

This Pulitzer Prize winner examines New York’s upper crust society through the life and decisions of Newland Archer.  Archer hails from one of New York’s top families and his engagement to sweet May Welland sets him up for a lifetime of perfect affluence – and perfect monotony.  He doesn’t seem to mind, until May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska arrives.  Fleeing from an unhappy marriage to a Polish Count, ‘Poor Ellen’ looks and acts differently than the rest of society.  Archer is captivated by her freshness and under her influence, begins to view his social circle through a new lens.

I was captivated by this book.  When I started reading, I did so more because it was a ‘classic’ than because I was interested in the plot.  By the second chapter, I was completely hooked by the clever satire and wittiness, by the ridiculous and hilarious characters, and by Edith Wharton’s lovely, lovely writing.  She painted every scene with such detail that I could almost hear the faint opera strains wafting from the pages and see the questionable dishes presented by the Archer’s lackluster chef.

What I most enjoyed about Wharton’s writing was her ability to subject this elite world to such exacting scrutiny without ever appearing bitter or mean-spirited.  In fact, she often did so with humor:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

As for the characters and their stories, I followed Archer and May’s and Archer and Ellen’s relationships with great interest.  I struggled with which to cheer for, as I found great beauty and great flaw in each of the potential pairings.  I don’t want to give away the end, but I ended the book with very mixed feelings.  I wanted to keep reading.  I wanted things to end differently.  And I was surprised by how much I had misjudged several of the characters.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to read this book, please go find a copy.  It really was lovely.

A brief warning:  I was so determined to not let the book end that I ran out and got the movie version with Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder.  Don’t make this same mistake.  I’m still mystified about how the movie could turn such an enjoyable and beautiful book into 2 hours of sheer boredom.  If you want to keep living the book, let me know.  I’m dying to discuss it with someone!

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about The Age of Innocence:

50 Book Challenge – 28. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Book-a-rama – The Age of Innocence: Review

Joy’s Blog – Review: The Age of Innocence

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Chains

Title: Chains (audiobook)

Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Published: 2008

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Rating: 4 of 5

Chains was my first introduction to Laurie Halse Anderson, and I am beginning to understand why she is the current darling of the Young Adult world.  This book tells the story of Isabel, an orphaned slave girl living during the Revolutionary War.  She and her younger sister, Ruth, are denied the freedom promised to them by their recently deceased owner and find themselves moving to New York City with their new cruel masters.

Isabel’s struggle between accepting her fate and looking for opportunities to gain their freedom is heartrending.  Against the background of war, her quest for personal freedom is particularly poignant.  In an city filled with talk of liberty and rights, no one appears to care about how those ideals apply to the many slaves serving on both sides of the conflict.

I loved Isabel’s dogged determination and her fierce love for her helpless sister.  I was cheering for them from page one, and took great delight in the intelligence and cunning Isabel displayed.  The audiobook version was great, although the narrator had a difficult time with male characters – they all sounded angry, even when they weren’t.

Anderson has announced that two more books will follow Chains.  The next, Forge, is being released in 2010 and I am definitely looking forward to it!

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about Chains:

A Comfy Chair and a Good Book – Chains

Devourer of Books – Chains – Book Review

Maw Books Blog – Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Random Wonder – Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson – Review

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A Northern Light Title: A Northern Light (audiobook)

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Published: 2003

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Rating: 3 of 5

I sometimes worry that I miss things by listening to the audio version of a book.  In this case, I suspect that the audio version of A Northern Light created a different impression for me than if I had just read the book.

A Northern Light is about Mattie Gokey, a teenager in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in the early 1900s.  She is a farm girl bearing many family responsibilities after her mother’s death, but who secretly desires to go to college in NYC.  By chance, Mattie also comes to possess letters belonging to a young woman who suspiciously drowned at the local lake resort.

I didn’t love this book, which surprised me since it was recommended by a good friend who’s opinion I wholeheartedly trust.  If I’m honest, I never gave the book a fair chance.  The narrator’s voice was extremely annoying, and I often found myself cringing at both her voice attempts and her unusual inflection.  It can be difficult to divorce narration from the book itself, but I’ll try.

Jennifer Donnelly created an intelligent and likable main character in Mattie.  Unfortunately, her clear intelligence made it hard to believe her frequent obliviousness about people’s intentions and the events around her.  I was able to figure out every major plot twist long before it was revealed, but Mattie remained completely unaware each time.  Maybe this is a case of, as my sister says, a smart person having no common sense – but I was hoping for more out of Mattie.

Each thing I enjoyed about A Northern Light was like this – having a flip side that detracted from the book as well.  Donnelly did a great job of incorporating some timely racial issues into the story, but Weaver, the only black boy in the book, was disappointingly two-dimensional and predictable.  Mattie’s love of words allowed Donnelly to use interesting vocabulary, but it was done with a heavy hand and often felt forced.  The based-on-true-events drowning is a captivating story, but it is never truly connected to Mattie’s own story and it ends up feeling like two different books have been rather awkwardly crammed into one volume.

Due to the two-sided nature of this book, I gave it a middle-of-the-road 3 out of 5 rating.  More importantly, I still trust my friend’s opinion, because I can definitely see why she recommended A Northern Light.

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Don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying about A Northern Light:

A Life in Books – Past and Present

Reviewer X – A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnolly

The Sleepy Reader – Book Review: A Northern Light

Sonderbooks – A Northern Light

The New York Times – A Northern Light

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