Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

When the Emperor Was Divine – Book Review

June 11, 2008

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Oksuta

This was my second time reading “When the Emperor Was Divine,” and I found it just as moving as my first time.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” is the haunting story of a Japanese-American family from Berkeley during World War II. The father is taken from their house shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for a loyalty hearing. He is then kept in an internment camp in the desert. Not long after, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 and the rest of the family must pack up their house and let themselves be taken to another camp in the desert.

This story is told from five different points of view, although there are only four characters. The first three points of view are all third person limited omniscient, focusing first on the mother, then the daughter, and finally the son. This spans from the time the “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” are posted through the end of their time in the camps. Once the war is over, we see first person narration from the son, followed by almost first person stream of consciousness from the father.

The switch in narration is beautifully done to reflect the shock and dehumanization felt by the family. The book holds you at just the right distance to witness of the confusion and disbelief experienced by the people taken from their homes, called disloyal, and relocated to camps in the American desert. The father’s narration shocks and shames and contains more feeling than the rest of book put together.

I think this is an extremely well-done book on an important topic, and I highly recommend it.

Buy this book on Amazon

May Reading Wrap-Up

May 30, 2008

I read 14 books in May. I likely would have read more, had it not been for the reading ennui I experienced near the beginning of the month and the resulting theme read of some long books. If I hadn’t had two four-hour plane rides and a fair amount of time in airports and on public transit, I probably wouldn’t have attained 14. It didn’t hurt that both “Monique and the Mango Rains” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” were so engaging that I read them each in basically one sitting.

Of these books, two were read for ReaderViews, three (well, 2.5) for a theme read on Dracula/vampires, one was provided by Literary Ventures Fund, one was read for book club, one for LibraryThing Early Reviewers, one for a LibraryThing group read, two ‘just because,’ and three were sent to me for review.

Note: The titles of the books link to my reviews.

My Reading Wrap-Up for May

Fiction (Novels)

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – Buy on Amazon

Dracula by Bram Stoker – Buy on Amazon

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Buy on Amazon

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (review to follow later today) – Preorder on Amazon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (review to follow after book club) – Buy on Amazon

Fiction (Short Stories)

Politics Noir edited by Gary Phillips – Buy on Amazon

Historical Fiction

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff – Preorder on Amazon

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman – Buy on Amazon


Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine – Buy on Amazon

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway – Buy on Amazon

Have I Got A Guy for You! edited by Alix Strauss (review coming) – Buy on Amazon

Storm Over Morocco by Frank Romano – Buy on Amazon


Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide by Jane Murray

Vlad the Impaler by M.J. Trow – Buy on Amazon

Top Pick for the Month

Monique and the Mango Rains cover

“Monique and the Mango Rains,” by Kris Holloway, is the story of Kris’ time in the Peace Corps in Mali, particularly her interaction with Monique Dembele, Kris’ host and the village midwife. Monique was an amazing woman and this is a well written, amazing story. David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife,” Andrew Davidson’s “The Gargoyle,” and Jerramy Fine’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” were in a close three-way tie for second place with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Middlesex” not far behind (man, I read some fantastic books this month!), but there was such power in Holloway’s story, that I was compelled to choose it for the top honor. The only thing that could have made this book better was if it was three times as long.

Reminder: There is still time to get in on the contest! All of these books (and any others I have reviewed) are up for grabs!

The Aviary Gate – Book Review

May 26, 2008

 The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

 “The Aviary Gate” is a dual time period work of historical fiction.  The majority of the plot takes place in Istanbul, both in the present day and in the year 1599.  The present-day protaganist is a graduate student, Elizabeth Staveley, working on her thesis studying captivity narratives from the Ottoman Empire.  One day, while working in the library, Elizabeth discovers an old fragment of a manuscript describing the captivity of a British woman, Celia Lamprey, in the harem of the Sultan.  This is an unprecedented find for Elizabeth, who becomes very emotionally involved with Celia’s story. 

Woven into Elizabeth’s search is the story of Celia’s life in the harem in Istanbul in 1599.  Life for Celia suddenly becomes much more intriguing and dangerous when the Chief Eunuch is the victim of an attempted murder and the war between the Sultan’s mother and his favorite concubine heats up.  It is among these events that Celia learns that Paul Pindar, her fiance who believes her to be dead, is in Istanbul with the English ambassador.

Hickman has a great deal of talent as a writer.  The book is beautifully written, and the tale of Istanbul in the late 16th century is very intriguing.  The present day storyline, however, is somewhat under-developed.  Although Elizabeth is dealing with heartbreak and love, her story was never particularly compelling, and her emotional connection to Celia’s story is never fully explained.  I definitely enjoyed this book, but I think I would have prefered had it only been the story of Celia, Paul, and the Sultan’s harem. 

“The Aviary Gate” goes on sale Tuesday, May 27th.  Buy it on Amazon.

The 19th Wife – Book Review

May 23, 2008

19th Wife cover LT BirdThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Release date: August 5, 2008

David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife” appears at first to be a daunting novel, weighing in at close to 600 pages, including the author’s note in the beginning.  I admit to cringing when I saw the size, sure that it would be awhile before I would get to any of my other books.

How happy I was to find out I was mistaken!  This book was so enjoyable that I read it in little more than 48 hours, sneaking a page here or there whenever possible.

“The 19th Wife” is a multi-time period story dealing with the legacy of polygamy in Mormonism and Morman fundamentalism.  The main characters are Jordan Scott – a young man kicked out at 14 years old of a polygamous community in Utah calling itself “First Latter Day Saints” for holding his stepsister’s hand – and Eliza Ann Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young turned moral crusader against polygamy.  Like Eliza Ann, Jordan’s mother is also a 19th wife.  Jordan is drawn back to Utah and back in contact with “The Firsts” when his mother is accused of murdering his father.

I have never read a book quite like this, historical fiction mixed with a present-day murder mystery.  I imagine that in a lot of cases, such an attempt would fail miserably.  With “The 19th Wife,” however, pulls it off brilliantly.  Mixed in with the two stories, Ebershoff included “documents” such as Wikipedia articles and requests for permission to research in LDS Church archives, as well as letters or memoirs of other historical figures and a thesis paper.  Instead of breaking up the action, this seems a clever way to impart to the reader information that neither first person narrator should have.

Although I was slightly disappointed at the way the murder mystery wrapped up in the present-day story thread, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I loved the concept, I was ecstatic that the author saw fit to include a “what’s true, what’s not true” note at the end of his book – why don’t more authors of historical fiction do this, by the way? – and I enjoyed both the story and the writing.  I will be on the lookout for this Ebershoff’s previous and future works.

Buy this book on Amazon

The Historian – Book Review

May 15, 2008

Let me just begin by pointing out the creepy face on the cover of this book. Creepy, creepy, creepy. This is at least the third time I’ve read this book, and the first time I’ve ever noticed the face on the cover. Evidently I’m not always the most observant…

The Historian,” by Elizabeth Kostova, is the story of a group of people who discover that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula, still walks the earth as a vampire. The story takes place in the ‘present’ of the 1970s, as well as through stories and letters of the 1950s and the 1930s. The main narrator is a teenage girl who lives with her American diplomat father in Amsterdam. Her father narrates the portions set in the 1950s, and his mentor Bartolomew Rossi’s letters describe the events of the ’30s.

The narrator’s father, Paul, is forced to relive his discovery of Dracula’s extant nature and the memories of his search for his mentor, who vanishes under bizarre circumstances, when his daughter discovers an old book in his library. The book is completely blank, save for a woodprint in the center and the word Drakula. Through Paul’s stories, we are taken both through Paul’s journey and through Rossi’s original discovery of the existence of Dracula.

I have read this book multiple times and each time I cannot put it down. The way Kostova weaves together fact and fiction is incredible. Additionally, it is one of those books that is written with an introduction by the main character that introduces the book as if it was a memoir. Those books are somehow the easiest for which to suspend disbelief, even about a supernatural subject like this one. Reading this book alongside Bram Stoker’s “Dracula“, as well M.J. Trow’s “Vlad the Impaler” gave me an even greater appreciation for this book. It became obvious that Ms. Kostova had not only done her research, but she had essentially created a modern day version of “Dracula.” She manages to recreate many of the same elements as Stoker, without simply ‘updating’ his story.

Buy these books on Amazon:
The Historian
Dracula (Barnes & Noble Classics)
Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula

My First Theme Read

May 10, 2008

I’m a member of the “Reading Globally” group on LibraryThing, which does theme or country-based theme reads every month and I am planning to participate both in the “Balkans” read this month and the “voluntary immigration” (so as to distinguish from displacement or abduction) theme read in June.

Getting ready for those has got me thinking about the potential power of doing mini-theme reads on my own – reading historical fiction, fiction, and/or nonfiction all together around a certain subject in order to get a fuller understanding of the subject. I have a couple that are sort of forming in my head:

  • I bought an historical book about Alexander the Great and have solicited historical fiction recommendations about the same from kegsoccer.
  • I read one of Lauren Willig’s books, Deception of the Emerald Ring, without knowing it was part of a series, or that it was based on the aftermath of the events in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I have now acquired all but her newest book and plan to read first The Scarlet Pimplernel, then all of her books in order as a slightly different sort of theme read. Probably I will be taking all of these on my honeymoon in July, as her books seem good beach books to me.

However, my first theme read sprang from my TBR pile completely unplanned, as Athena from the forehead of Zeus. As I wrote earlier this week, I experienced some reading ennui after reading and reviewing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” That book was just so charming and fun that nothing seemed right afterwards. I finally decided that this situation called for a not-too-heavy reread. I went to my bookshelves to grab “The Other Boleyn Girl,” but accidentally pulled out “The Historian” instead. “That’s okay,” I thought, “I like ‘The Historian’.” This was the fateful thought that brought about this theme read.

I began reading “The Historian” and thought, “hey, as long as I’m reading this, I should read ‘Vlad the Impaler‘ at the same time, since I already have it and haven’t read it!” I got a little ways into both books and decided I should see what all the fuss was originally about, and sent Brian to Half Price Books to pick up “Dracula” for me. He actually got me a very nice, annotated copy. So now, out of nowhere, I am doing some sort of Dracula/vampire theme read…and it is AWESOME! “Dracula” is actually really, really good so far.

April Reading Wrap-up

May 2, 2008

I read 13 books in April, including my two audiobooks. Two were audio books, four were given to me specifically to review, one was sent to me by a fantastic fellow blogger, one was for book club, and the rest I just picked up because they sounded interesting. There are two more books that I began in April, but since one I just finished and the other I’m only half way through, they will count for May. Here’s the basic rundown of what I read and reviewed. At the bottom you’ll find my top pick for the month…

My Reading Wrap-up for April


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (audiobook)

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (audiobook) – review coming soon

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Historical Fiction

The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Queen of Shadows by Edith Felbar

The Last Queen: A Novel by C.W. Gortner

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Two Brothers: One North, One South (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Alternative History (Fiction)

Eleanor Vs. Ike by Robin Gerber


Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

A Year Without ‘Made in China’ by Sara Bongiorni (book club book)


Franklin and Lucy by Joseph Perino (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Historical Genesis by Richard Fischer (ReaderViews Review Book)

Top Pick for the Month:

The Last Queen cover

C.W. Gortner’s “The Last Queen” is a novel of Juana of Castile, also known as ‘Juana la Loca’. Gortner is very sympathetic to Juana and writes her fantastically. This is a wonderful novel of a woefully overlooked and maligned Queen. See my full review here.

Year of Wonders – Book Review

April 28, 2008

Year of Wonders coverThere are certain authors about whom much is said on LibraryThing. Authors like Margaret Atwood seems to be a special favorite, as does Geraldine Brooks. I had never read anything by either of these women and felt quite deficient. I will be reading Atwood’s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” in mid-May for a group read, but I have begun my experience with Geraldine Brooks in “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.”

A novel of the plague. Sounds just fascinating, right? Okay, granted, that does sound like something that would be interesting to me no matter what, I am a huge nerd, after all. Amazingly enough, however, I think it is ALSO something that would be interesting to other people.

This novel is based on a small town Brooks happened across in England that was touted as the ‘plague’ town. In 1666 this town was infected by the bubonic plague and they willingly shut themselves off from contact with all of those outside their village from something around an entire year. Not surprisingly, much of the town died (I don’t think this is a spoiler, it was the freaking plague!).

While this is historical fiction, specifically the type of historical fiction which places partially fictional characters (Brooks uses the names of real people only where her depictions are based solely on historical fact) around a real historical event, there is also fantastic character growth and development. I felt that Anna, Elinor, and Michael (at least) were real people that had really gone through this ordeal. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that Brooks found diaries with thoughts and feelings poured out upon their pages, but no, she is just actually that good of a writer.

Whether you are interested in learning something about the bout of plague which ‘plagued’ the town of Eyam in the 17th century or whether you want to read some non-fluffy, solidy written fiction with well-developed characters, Year of Wonders is a book I would highly recommend. I guess all those LibraryThingers were right about Geraldine Brooks!

Go ahead and buy this book on Amazon – Year of Wonders

The Last Queen – Book Review

April 25, 2008

The Last Queen: A Novel
C.W. Gortner
Ballantine Books
ISBN 978-0-345-50184-4, $25.00, Tentative Release date July 29, 2008
Reviewed by Jen Cardwell for Reader Views 04/08

Juana La Loca
4.5 StarsThe Last Queen cover

C.W. Gortner’s “The Last Queen: A Novel” has all of the hallmarks of the typical historical fiction novel that is so popular today. Juana is a passionate woman who strongly desires her husband; she is a strong woman who is furious – and shows it – when her husband is unfaithful to her; she is a politically savvy woman; she is thwarted by the men around her at every turn; she is deeply maternal and, in opposition to the culture of the day and in the shock and dismay of all those around her, chooses to nurse at least some of her children herself. Change the name, “Anne, Mary, Catherine, etc.” and you could be talking about the main character in the vast majority of historical fiction about women written today, women written to appeal to the modern sensibilities of their readers.

Although Gortner follows all of the formulas, he managed to avoid making this book formulaic. The story of Juana of Castile is a very dramatic and tragic one: Juana is married against her will to the heir of the Hapsburg empire. She loves him dearly at the beginning of their marriage, but as political circumstances between her husband and her parents deteriorate, so does their relationship. Her husband is an ambitious man and is determined to be named heir to her parents’ Spanish empire. Gortner let the story stand on its own merit and did not attempt, as so many historical novelists do, to imbue an already dramatic story with melodrama.

Normally when reviewing historical fiction, I feel it is possible to give more of the plot without worrying about spoilers, so long as the plot follows historical events. However, Juana of Castile, also known as Juana la Loca is quite an under-studied historical figure, and her story will be unknown to many people. Suffice as to say that Gorton tells Juana’s story in such a riveting way that I could scarcely put the book down to eat, sleep, and work. The only reason it fell short of the 5 star mark is because he indulges in the love scenes so prevalent, and in my opinion so unnecessary, in current historical fiction. But for that this book would have been nearly perfect. I very strongly recommend “The Last Queen” to anyone with an interest in historical fiction, you will not be disappointed.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Last Queen: A Novel

Queen of Shadows – Book Review

April 22, 2008

Edith Felbar’s Queen of Shadows is the story of Queen Isabella of England, later called the “She-Wolf of France”, queen of King Edward II. Isabella’s story is told by the fictional Gwenith, a Welsh woman who comes to court to serve her. Although Gwenith’s original motive for coming to court is to exact revenge upon Edward for his father’s cruel treatment of her people, she grows to love the Queen she serves.

Edward was an alleged homosexual (although not so ‘alleged’ in Felbar’s novel) who was, like Queen Victoria in Plaidy’s book, frequently ruled by the men around him. In this way he is ruled by the Hugh the Despensers, Elder and Younger. Hugh the Younger (and by some accounts Hugh the Elder as well) was another of Edward’s alleged lovers and exacted a great deal of power of Edward in their relationship, alienating much of the country, including Isabella. The climax of the book, and of Isabella’s story comes in her attempt to take power for herself and her son, and to overthrow the rule of the Despensers.

Queen of Shadows seemed fairly clearly to be a well-researched book, and it was certainly good, but definitely not fantastic. At some points the book moved too quickly through seasons and years, which kept me from gaining much empathy for the characters (real people!) and their emotional states. Yes, you could understand Isabella’s fury at her treatment at the hand of the Despensers, but you could not truly feel it.

This book is another that I would recommend to those who read historical fiction for the specific purpose of having a quick, accessible introduction to historical events. If you are interested in the basic storyline of Edward II and Queen Isabella, by all means read this book. If you want a great novel, there are probably other things that you could choose.

Buy this book on Amazon: Queen of Shadows: A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II