Category Archives: Fiction — historical

The Map of Salt and Stars

saltandstarsThis was such a beautiful and engrossing book. It tells two parallel stories. In the present day (well, the recent past — 2011), twelve-year-old Nour moves back to Syria with her mother and two older sisters. The family has been living in the US, where Nour was born, but with her father’s death from cancer they return to the parents’ home country — just in time to find it torn apart by civil war.

Nour’s story is told in alternating chapters with a story she remembers her father telling her — the legend of Rawiya, a teenaged girl who disguises herself as a boy to travel the Middle East in the company of a famous mapmaker. (The mapmaker, al-Idrisi, is a real historical character, but the Rawiya legend is invented by the author for this book). While I enjoyed the Rawiya story, which combines historical and mythical elements, it was Nour’s contemporary story that really grabbed my attention.

For those of us whose only exposure to the Syrian war comes through news stories featuring devastated refugee families, we may not have given a lot of thought to how those people became refugees. In Map of Salt and Stars, we see how Nour’s family goes from the an ordinary middle-class life consumed with sibling squabblings between the sisters and attempting to get past grief at their father’s death, to living as refugees on the run with only the clothes they are wearing when their apartment building in Homs is bombed just as they are about to sit down to dinner. The story demonstrates with shattering detail how quickly ordinary people living ordinary lives can lose everything and become homeless and desperate when civil war erupts around them. Although the author is Syrian-American and did not live in Syria during the war, she has certainly created what feels like a believable picture of a young girl and her family navigating these horrific events, trying to stay together and hold onto hope.


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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee

gentsguideThis historical YA fiction is an interesting romp through early 18th-century Europe through the eyes of a young “rake,” Henry “Monty” Montague, who is on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and his sister Felicity, who is (very reluctantly) on her way to finishing school in France. Monty, Percy and Felicity are all outsiders in their own ways, people who, for various reasons, do not fit neatly into the mold of upper class English life in the 1720s. Monty is the narrator here (I’m excited to learn there’s a coming sequel in which Felicity, who is a great character, is the focus). While he has all the traditional marks of the dissolute young man of his era (drinking, gambling, whoring, inciting parental disapproval) his real crime, the one that makes his father threaten to disinherit him, is that he is, in modern terms, bisexual — the inappropriate people with whom he’s caught in bed are just as likely to be male as female, and that simply will not do.

(There’s a possible diversion I could get into here about historical views of same-sex relationships, which I think could have been explored with a bit more nuance than is done in this novel, but I realize this is a YA novel where the focus is on adventure and I understand that some of the complex social history has to be skimmed over a bit. I tried not to get too caught up in the absence of some of the nuances I wondered about — like about what types of same-sex activity were considered acceptable, though secretive, in all-male environments like boys’ schools, as opposed to what was considered shameful and forbidden).

The trio’s Grand Tour quickly goes off the rails when an object Monty casually (and spitefully) picks up turns out to be tremendously valuable. This thoughtless theft leads to an encounter with highwaymen, which ends up with Monty, Percy and Felicity on the run. The twists and turns of their adventures include alchemy, piracy, and maybe even a little necromancy. It’s a fast-paced adventure that also touches on some serious topics — mainly, the question of how people in the past who didn’t fit neatly into society’s social, sexual, racial and gender categories managed to survive, and maybe even carve out spaces in which to thrive. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Young Adult

The Cicero Trilogy, by Robert Harris

RobertHarrisMy prejudices are pretty well-known. I love historical fiction; there’s almost no era or part of the world I don’t enjoy reading a book about. And I have a huge, largely unexamined, bias in favour of historical fiction by women, because whether women are writing about famous women from the past (such as Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra) or about famous men (George’s The Autobiography of Henry the Eighth), or whether women writers are creating fictional characters, male or female, to live their lives alongside the well-known events and famous people (Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles; Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street), I just enjoy the perspective that my favourite women writers bring to stories. So while I wouldn’t avoid picking up a historical novel just because it had a male author, it might take one awhile to break through to my awareness.

Robert Harris’s trilogy about the Roman senator, orator and writer Cicero broke through for me in a very particular way. On a recent trip to London we stayed in an Airbnb flat that was located a block away from the theatre where the two-part play Imperium was playing, based upon these novels. (If you buy tickets to Imperium, you’ll buy them as tickets to two different plays, which can stand alone but work better together and can be seen, as we saw them, on two successive nights; however the Wikipedia page tells me that they were actually conceived of as six short plays, three in Part One and three in Part Two, and given the pacing and the timing of the intermissions, I can see that, but I only understood it retroactively). After walking past the theatre’s display boards several times a day while choosing what (available and affordable) plays we were going to see in London, Jason and I both decided we should see “that ancient Roman one” and we thoroughly enjoyed both parts of Imperium, with an excellent cast.

tiroSo this was the rare case of seeing the stage adaptation before reading the book, but in this case I’m glad I did it this way, because I was able to picture the actors in their roles, especially Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary who narrates the novels. Tiro was a real person — a slave later freed by Cicero, who was known for his ability to take notes of meetings and speeches quickly and accurately. He developed the forerunner of the modern shorthand system (he invented the ampersand!), and he did write a biography of his famous master, though the text has been lost to history. In the play, Joseph Kloska makes such an engaging, warm and wonderful Tiro that he is the perfect voice to draw a modern audience into the complex and violent world of the Roman Republic, and I was able to picture Kloska’s Tiro throughout the books, narrating the story for me. I highly recommend both the trilogy and, if you ever get a chance to see them, the plays.

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Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

islandofthemadYes, it’s another installment in the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell saga! King has written 20 books about Holmes’s late-in-life marriage to the brilliant Russell; I’ve read nearly all of them and posted reviews of six, beginning with the very first one which I read and wrote about way back in 2006 at the dawn of this blog. The quality of these stories continues to be good and the characterization intriguing as this latest chapter takes Holmes and Russell to Venice in the mid 1920s and brings them into contact with a dazzling array of Jazz Age characters including the very non-fictional Cole Porter. Ostensibly, they’re there to look for a missing woman, the aunt of Russell’s college friend — but really they’re there to have another adventure in another fascinating locale. This book is as enjoyable as all the rest in this series.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery

Lost in September, by Kathleen Winter

lostinseptemberKathleen Winter’s Lost in September both is, and isn’t, a novel about General James Wolfe, the English commander who died in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 after securing victory for England over the forces of New France, more or less ensuring that Canada would be an English-speaking country with a large and unhappy French minority for the next few centuries. It’s a novel about Wolfe, narrated through the eyes and voice of a young man in modern-day Montreal who may be … the ghost of James Wolfe? A time-travelling James Wolfe? A reincarnation of James Wolfe? A traumatized veteran of the Afghanistan war who just happens to be fascinated with and haunted by James Wolfe?

None of this is clear for much of the book, nor does it need to be. The multilayered memories of James Wolfe and Jimmy Blanchard weave in and out of one another on a surreal quest rooted in very real and vivid detail. It’s a quest that ranges from Montreal to Quebec City to the Gaspe Peninsula, a quest to understand the mind and motives of a long-dead man as well as to uncover the life and purpose of one who is still living.

This novel was weird, but I loved how it immersed me in its mystery and plunged me into the troubled mind of its narrator. The shambling, shamanic quest builds to a poignant conclusion with the reminder that whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries, war is brutal and leaves men shattered in its wake. Some die “heroically” on the battlefield; some live on to try to rebuild their lives afterwards. This is a story of both kinds of men in one man, and it’s fascinating and eerie and beautiful.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical

The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch

marinaJanet Fitch’s novel The Revolution of Marina M., spotted at random on a bookstore shelf (so I totally judged a book by its cover) swept me away into the world of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of a young middle-class Russian girl, stepping into adulthood in St. Petersburg just as her city and her country is about to be plunged into unimaginable changes.

Marina Makarova is the same age as the century, turning 17 in 1917. She’s a poet, the daughter of an Anglophile father who is immersed in the politics of First World War Russia under the Tsar. Her older brother is away fighting the Germans; her younger brother is a dreamy artist who resists their father’s efforts to make a man out of him by sending him to military school. Her mother is … complicated, as is Marina’s relationship with her. With her two best friends, Varvara and Mina, Marina explores the edges of the revolution that’s in the air; with her older brother’s friend Kolya she explores the first tastes of adult passion. Then revolution comes — first the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government, in which Marina’s father is active, then Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution which completely tears down and seeks to rebuild Russian society.

Marina’s world, too, is torn apart — her family shattered, her first love affair quickly ended and replaced by a second in which she becomes part of a circle of radical young poets and artists along with her boyfriend Genya. Meanwhile the Revolution careens along, promising a workers’ utopia but unable to provide food or clean water to the majority of St. Petersburg’s poor, and Marina’s life careens along with it, from one unexpected adventure to another.

This is an epic novel on both the personal and political levels — Marina is caught up in huge events, but the events of her personal life as she navigates family, friendship, two love affairs and a horrific brush with a violent gangster, are, if anything, even more turbulent than what’s happening in the streets of St. Petersburg. Some of the disasters Marina faces are of her own making — she makes terrible choices about men at least three times in the novel when, the second and third time, she really should know better — but she is a passionate woman led astray by what she believes, over and over, is a love she cannot resist. (She’s also still in her late teens, not a time of life best known for people making smart decisions). She is frequently a frustrating character, but also a compelling one: by the end of the novel her determination to survive, no matter what tragedies strike her personal life or the country she loves, is overwhelming.

I found this novel hard to put down, both for Marina’s personal story and for the depiction of Russia in the throes of revolution. Russia is very far from being my area of expertise so I cannot judge how accurate Fitch’s depiction of it is, but the streets of St. Petersburg during the Red Terror certainly felt real, and the layers of complexity around who supported revolution and why, what the different parties and factions were, revealed a far more intricate story than the brief summary version of the revolution that I teach my students in our overview course of 20th-century history.

The novel opens with a prologue set in the early 1930s, with an older Marina living far from Russia. As the story progressed, it ranged widely over the Russian landscape around St. Petersburg and across a wide variety of relationships and experiences for Marina — but time-wise, the story stayed focused on the revolutionary years of 1917-1919. As I drew near the end and Marina was still only 19, I began to wonder how Fitch was going to wrap up this incident-filled story and give us a hint of how Marina ends up where she does in her thirties. It seemed impossible to tie up the loose ends of her story so quickly — and sure enough, at the end of the last chapter came the fateful words: End of Book One. I’m pleased to know there’s going to be a sequel but frustrated that I have to wait to find out what happened to Marina.

For a book that gives you the feeling of being immersed in a different time and place I recommend this one very highly — even if once in awhile you want to give Marina a good kick in the pants to remind her that a guy who’s broken your heart once will definitely, definitely do it again, and also, it’s not worth risking your life for the possibility of great sex. Hopefully the second volume will reveal that Marina has learned some of these lessons.

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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

remainsofthedayA couple of months ago, I was watching Netflix’s excellent drama The Crown and remarked to my husband, “It’s quite an accomplishment to make a compelling drama about a group of people whose entire guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible in any given situation.” If this is true about the British upper classes it is, perhaps, even more true of the servant class who traditionally made their lives of luxury possible. The ideal English butler, like the ideal English servant at any level, was envisioned as a blank slate, a person who expressed no personal opinions or wishes except to be of service. Never has this suppression of emotion been more deftly explored than in Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of Day. Although I’d often heard of the book and the 1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins, I’d never seen the movie and had never read the novel until a couple of weeks ago.

The book is narrated in first-person by the butler, Mr. Stevens, in the 1950s. As with many of the great houses in Britain, the house in which Stevens has served for so many years is on the decline in the post-WW2 years. No longer owned by the nobleman who once employed Stevens, the house has been bought by a rich American and the staff greatly reduced. Stevens is taking his first vacation in — well, ever, really — and borrowing his employer’s car to drive to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), who has written him a troubling letter that causes him to re-examine their past relationship. The novel, and Stevens’s memories of the past twenty-some years, unfold throughout the one-week solitary road trip.

Using a character as emotionally repressed and unused to self-examination as Stevens as a first-person narrator is a very difficult trick that only a writer as skilled as Ishiguro could pull off. Stevens is a man so completely subsumed in his role and so hemmed in by rules and expectations that he is almost completely cut off from his own feelings, and so the reader intuits Stevens’s feelings more from what he doesn’t say than from what he does. We realize as the story unfolds that Miss Kenton was in love with Stevens and that he was attracted to her; that he grieved over the illness and death of his father; that he disapproved of his old employer’s tolerance for Nazis in the pre-WW2 years — but he never admits any of these things openly, either to himself, to other characters, or to the reader. Rather, in every case he puts his own opinions and feelings to one side to do what he feels is his duty. This devotion to duty results in a life that is, to put it kindly, emotionally stunted — and by the end of the novel, there is just a suggestion that perhaps Stevens is beginning to realize this. Whether he has the capacity to live any differently in what remains of his day, or whether he will remain forever trapped by the image of the perfect English butler, is a question left unanswered. This is a masterful character study and left me far more moved than I expected to be.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical