Category Archives: historical fiction

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

(Finished yesterday, January 25, 2012)

This book was so good. Helps, I’m sure, that I’m a little obsessed with Hemingway and the whole idea of la generation perdue. After reading A Moveable Feast, I knew I had to read this book. So glad I did.

I know it’s technically historial fiction, but the author did quite a bit of research to make sure the book was as accurate as possible.

Although sad, because you know throughout the entire book that Hadley and Ernest don’t end up in the end, you can’t help but root for them. Hadley is now my idol. She was old when she met Ernest, had like no experience, was from St. Louis and met Ernest in Chicago…and then moved with him to Paris. Um, okay. Where’s my (would-never-cheat-on-me-but-close-to-being) Ernest?

Anyway, it was wonderful to read about how Ernest and Hadley helped each other become more of who they were. And reading about all their travels was pretty amazing, too. Winters in Austria, summers in the Cote d’Azur? Oui, s’il vous plait!!!

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To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

(Finished November 25, 2011)

To Have and Have Not is officially the first Hemingway book I did not thoroughly enjoy reading. It is also his latest work I’ve read. It was almost too simple and too straightforward and too course to be my kind of thing. I know that describes all of Hemingway’s work; usually I find it charming. This time, for some reason, I could not get into it.

I think most of the reason was the subject matter and location: running people and alcohol between the Florida Keys and Cuba just isn’t really something I’m interesting in reading. I was hoping that because it was Hemingway, I’d get into it. But I think the opposite happened – had this novel been richer and less sparse, I think I could’ve enjoyed it. As it was, I was bored and a little appalled and pretty bored.

The story focuses on a man named Harry. To make money to take care of his family, he runs alcohol – and people – between Florida and Cuba. Inevitably, things take a turn for the worse when he accepts a shady, shady job offer.

Things that bothered me about this book: 1. There was no real resolution to the story. It really just ended. 2. There were lots of characters that really make no difference to the story. 3. So much of the dialogue adds nothing to the story. 4. Connection between the separate stories was completely absent.

I probably would have stopped reading this book had I had another book to start at the time. Now I’m nervous to give Hemingway another shot – but I’m sure I will. I’ll just stick to his early stuff.

To Have and Have Not (Scribner Classics)To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

(Finished November 9, 2011)

So I have this thing with books I own – I tend to lose interest, even if the book itself is excellent, because I know I don’t have a time limit. Yes, this was the first time I’d ever read Jane Eyre. And it took me about a year. But I finally finished. And I loved it.

I really don’t know how I didn’t know the ending; the story is so popular. But I somehow managed to avoid learning what exactly happened. And I’m so glad I did!

Jane is my new hero. Quiet, homely, moral and intelligent – she is my kind of heroine. I’m sure that’s why this book is such a favorite: almost everyone can see something of themselves in Jane. We consider ourselves underdogs, losers, invisible to those who we see as superiors. Jane cannot see the traits others see in her as assets. Her situation certainly makes you re-evaluate yourself.

Oh, and Rochester. Not your typical main man. A little rough around the edges, secretive, and not super attractive, he makes himself irresistible to Jane because of his sharp mind and ability to care for her out of mutual respect and intelligence.

Every love story needs a conflict, and the conflict in this one seems insurmountable. (And a little supernatural – always a nice twist.) Creepy English manors, fires, sounds from the attic – Charlotte knew how to keep readers invested.

There’s just something about the sensible girl getting her man!

Jane EyreJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So good! Can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it!

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Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

(Finished September 27, 2011)

So I’m 4/7 of the way through this series. And I can’t imagine what the next novel has in store. But I’m reading them with Ms. Recob, and we both decided we needed a break. These novels are fantastic, but they are also intense and time-consuming. So I’ll be reading some other things for a while, but I will get back to number 5 eventually.

Anyway, for my review I’m going to have to give myself a refresher. I started this book about two months ago, then took a break because my ebook from the library expired before I could finish it. (Love that you can rent ebooks from the library though, I must say!) So then I got the hardback version but it’s a beast so I only read at home. But it’s done. And it was worth it.

So we left the last novel with Claire and Jaime in the American colonies. They find Jaime’s aunt Jocasta who owns a plantation. Jocasta is blind and her husband has died; she wants Jaime to take over control of the plantation. But he wants to make his own way. And Claire is disgusted by the idea of owning slaves, (as she should be.)

Luckily, the governor has decided he wants hardworking men like Jaime to settle the land at the outskirts of the territory — to protect it from Indians, mostly. Although it is going to be rough, Jaime agrees. He and Claire move to the newly dubbed “Fraser’s Ridge” with some of their little band and start a new life.

Meanwhile, back in the future, (or present, depending on how you look at it), Roger has discovered that Claire and Jaime are together in the past. He has also discovered information about when and how they will die. He keeps this secret from Brianna, their daughter. He doesn’t want to hurt her. And, more importantly, he doesn’t want to lose her.

But guess what? Brianna was doing her own research and found out about her parents’ life and death. She decides to time travel through the stones to find them. Roger finds out and follows her. What ensues…well, tons of crazy things.

Indian killings, ghost men from the future, unplanned pregnancies, unexpected alliances, shock, horror and intrigue. Gosh, these books really do have it all.

Drums of Autumn (Outlander Series #4)Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

(Finished August 24, 2011 — Slacking on blogging!)

Down and Out in Paris and London is another book I’ve wanted to pick up for ages, but never got around to reading. I’m glad I did.

A very realistic and mostly autobiographical book, Down and Out describes George Orwell’s experiences living and working amongst the poorest of the poor in two of Europe’s most well-known and richest cities, (both of which I adore.)

Many people have a romantic vision of Paris and London. I certainly did. But now I know the neighborhoods around the Seine and the Thames are not all rosy. In my study abroad program, we learned about and spent time in every kind of neighborhood in Paris. One of our assignments was to attend and write about a market in the historically underserved neighborhood of Saint-Denis outside Paris. It really opened our eyes. (Story and pics: http://bit.ly/rlx2g8) And in London, we certainly wandered through some not-so-ideal places.

Anyway, none of that was as shocking as some of Orwell’s stories. (But of course, one must realize that he wrote decades ago.)

Orwell describes his experiences in a matter-of-fact way, not lingering in self-pity. He does not seek sympathy from his readers, but merely describes the lice-ridden public houses and the dirty George V hotel kitchens.

One of my favorite quotes from the book came when George’s acquaintance, a down-and-out Englishman, was discussing how he failed to let his economic standing affect his mind.

Bozo said: “If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, ‘I’m a free man in here’” — he tapped his forehead — “and you’re all right.” (p. 165)

Another great quote to ponder: “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it.’? Money has become the grand test of virtue.” (p. 174)

So true. And depressing.

Another favorite addition was the glossary beginning on p. 174 of British slang of the day. For example, a clodhopper was a street dancer, a toby was a tramp and kip, a place to sleep.

My francophile and anglophile tendencies were more than satisfied by this book. If you share those interests, you should read it post-haste.

Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

(Finished July 31, 2011)

I should have finished this book more quickly than I did – it was only 90 pages – but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. Nothing against T.S. It’s me – I couldn’t seem to get into the whole play/poetry thing. I’ve been reading too many novels lately. The form threw me.

Not to say it wasn’t interesting. It was. If I SAW it instead of reading it, I would probably be way interested.

The play is about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket was killed on December 29, 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral. The play explains the circumstances of his death.

My favorite part of the play was, ironically, not the poetry but the prose. After Thomas is killed, the knights who were sent by the king explain why they killed Thomas. They talk directly to the audience in a matter-of-fact way. They explain that Thomas had turned on the king. Before becoming archbishop, he had worked for Henry II and been a loyal subject. After joining the ranks of the clergy, Thomas had worked counter to the king’s wishes. He had then fled forFranceand to the Holy See, leaving his parish. (Throughout most of the play, his parishioners serve as the choir, admonishing Thomas upon his return for leaving them for seven years to fend for themselves.)

The controversial part of the play is whether or not Thomas meant to be martyred. T.S. makes it pretty clear that Thomas knew his death was imminent and did nothing to stop it. In the play, Thomas tells the other priests to open the doors and let his killers come to him. Earlier in the play, tempters talked to Thomas about the advantages of being a martyr, something that T.S. believes played a major part in his death/martyrdom.

As I said, even though this play didn’t grab my attention while reading, I would like to see it on the stage. Well done, T.S.

Murder in the CathedralMurder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book certainly lived up to its hype. I laughed. I cried. I couldn’t put it down. And I saw so much of myself in Skeeter. Would I have been as brave as her? No. No way. But in her ambitions and her determination to not live the life so many other people had planned for her — to make her own way — I do see myself in that.

The book is told from the point of view of three main characters — Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is a middle-aged maid, a black woman who has been working for white families since she was young. Minny, a black woman in her 30s, is also a maid and has been working in the homes of white families since her early teen years, (and has gotten fired many, many times because of her “sass”). Skeeter is a 23-year-old white woman, just out of college. She is single and still lives at home on her family’s farm (plantation). Skeeter has ambitions of becoming a journalist. But she is stuck in Mississippi.

An unlikely group, to be sure.

Skeeter writes to inquire about a job in New York, but has next to no experience. An editor, Missus Stein, tells her that she needs more practical knowledge of journalism — she needs to work her writing chops, if you will. Her suggestion to Skeeter is to write about something no one else is writing about, something that matters.

Skeeter seeks experience. She begins writing a weekly domestic help column in the local newspaper. The problem is, she doesn’t know much about cleaning or cooking or taking care of children. So she goes to the next best source for this information: her friend Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights movement has begun. Things are happening. Buses have become integrated. The first black student has begun studying at Ole Miss. Black men and women are allowed to sit at the counter at the Woolworth’s…

Skeeter takes all of this in as she attends Junior League meetings and plays bridge with her high school friends. Her relationship with Aibileen grows. Hilly, her long-time close friend and President of the Junior League, has introduced a “Home Health Sanitation” initiative that seeks to provide separate bathrooms to “the help” — for cleanliness. According to Hilly, black people have different diseases, and she says it is just the proper way.

Skeeter cannot stand the way the maids are treated by her fellow white women — and wants to do something about it. Finally, she has an idea. She seeks Aibileen’s help and, together with Minny, they come up with a project to tell the maids’ side of the story.

Of course, the book has lots of other plot lines. Skeeter has a love interest, Minny and Hilly have a ridiculous history that plays out in the end, Aibileen gets a new beginning…

I am always shocked when I read even fictional things about this time in our country’s history. I’m appalled and saddened by the way people were, and STILL ARE, treated in many parts of the U.S. To many of us, this seems like ages ago. We like to say we don’t see in color. But we can’t forget that some people still do — and we have to keep stories like this alive so more and more people can actually live out being an American. (Which to me means being able to get a good education and have opportunities to work hard and make something of yourself!)

Okay, mini rant over!

Like I said earlier, I really identified with the character of Skeeter. We have quite a few things in common, including the fact that we’re both tall and have extremely frizzy hair. Other than that, I saw myself in her dreams and ambitions to leave Jackson. (Kind of like how I would have felt stuck had I stayed in St. Louis. It’s home, but it’s not where I need to be right now.) She wanted to make something of herself, and was busy balancing people’s expectations of her with her own expectations for her life. Also, she was awkward and not such a hit with the men-folk — which seemed familiar. And she was my age…so there was that.

Basically, I cannot recommend this book more. Read it — you won’t regret it.

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

(Finished July 10, 2011)

My addiction to the Outlander series continues. I am a little obsessed with these books, and I’m not alone. Almost every review I’ve read about them includes something about their addicting nature. Once you start, you just won’t want to stop. I reserved the fourth from the Chicago Public Library’s ebooks service immediately after finishing Voyager. Now that Harry Potter is over, I’m glad I have another series to look forward to. (Although if I keep reading them at the pace I’m going, I’ll be finished within the next few months and will have to find a new series. Hunger Games? So what if they’re for kids…)

Voyager was the first book I purchased on my iPad, and the first I’ve finished there. (I’m reading Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter on iBooks as well, but they were both free and currently unfinished.)

Warning: There will probably be spoilers.

Recap: We left the last novel as Claire had finished explaining the end of her life with Jaime to Brianna and Roger.

Like the other Outlander novels, Voyager felt like three or four books in one.

Claire has discovered that Jaime is alive (in the past). Not only does she know that he is alive, she knows where he is – in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Encouraged by her now-grown daughter, Claire makes preparations to return to Jaime in the past.

Once she arrives, a whole host of things happen. She finds Jamie and is thrown into his outlaw lifestyle. He is a printer of seditious and libelous brochures, a smuggler and lives in a brothel. So much for the righteous man she once knew.

Much happens in Scotland, but it leads to Jaime and Claire needing to leave. They plan to go back to France. In the meantime, young Ian is kidnapped by a ship heading to the Caribbean. To get him back, Claire and Jaime must hire a ship and pursue the kidnappers.

A whole host of things happen along the way. Jaime is seasick. Fergus brings along Jaime’s step-daughter and wants to marry her. Storms. More kidnapping. Murders. Secrets. Lies. It all makes for a thrilling read. I didn’t want to stop. (And can’t wait to get to Drums of Autumn!)

Voyager (Outlander, #3)Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Well, it’s back to The Outlander series for me. These books are so incredibly addicting…but so long. I feel like I have just read three books in one. (742 pages of a giant hardcover book is about equal to three shorter novels if I do say so myself. Actually, it is about right. Recob finished three shorter novels of a similar subject in the time it took me to finish this one!)

Anyway, Dragonfly in Amber was great. Despite its length, the novel kept me extremely interested. (It helped that for most of the time I was reading, Recob was ahead of me by multiple chapters so my goal was to catch up to her – which I did! I also had to finish the beast of a book before it was due at the library on the 13th – beat that too!)

So, a little recap: We left off the last book with Claire helping Jaime escape from the English prison where he was tortured. They left for France and ended up at a monastery run by a relative of Jaime’s. With Claire’s help, Jaime recovered from his fragile mental and physical state of health while at the abbey.

Dragonfly in Amber opens with a new storyline. Claire and Brianna, her daughter who we’ve never met before, visit a young historian in 1968 Scotland. He is the adopted son of a historian Claire and her husband knew in the 40s. Claire eventually begins to tell her story to this historian and her daughter, who is actually Jaime’s daughter. (Yes, she was conceived in the 1740s and time-traveled in Claire’s womb to the 1940s. I never said this book was completely historically accurate or even made much sense at all…) Needless to say, they find it shocking and think Claire has gone pretty bonkers.

But Claire doesn’t falter. She continues to tell her story. From days spent planning at the abbey along the coast, to condemning a ship full of expensive spirits, to consorting with mysterious herbalists, to dining at Versailles with the king, Jaime and Claire have many an adventure in France. A lucky family connection to a major liquor merchant with important societal connections in Paris helps place Claire and Jaime right where they want to be: in a place to play double agent. While consorting with the society of Paris, Jaime keeps up a friendship with Bonnie Prince Charles – the son of the self-proclaimed rightful king of Scotland. Because of Claire’s knowledge about the defeat of Scottish troops in the upcoming Jacobite, or Scottish loyalist, uprising, Claire and Jaime are determined to stop Bonnie Prince Charles from carrying out his plans to reclaim the throne.

There are side plots of course. The pair meet Mary Hawkins, a girl Claire knows to be a descendant of her 1940s husband. The problem is, Jonathan Randall, the man who tortured Jaime, was supposed to be the father of Mary Hawkins’ child. But he is dead. The situation is complicated when Mary Hawkins’ creepy uncle, the Duke of Sandringham, is out to have her married off to an old French noble. The man whose ship Claire condemns by pronouncing a crew member has smallpox is out to get her and might be dabbling in the occult. Or is he? A fellow socialite and friend of Claire becomes pregnant with Bonnie Prince Charles’ illegitimate son. Claire meets an herbalist who spreads rumors that she is “La Dame Blanche” – she just can’t get rid of those witch rumors. Jaime is attacked by pirates then arrested for dueling. And so much more.

It would be impossible for me to recap the entire plot, but let’s just say a few more things: Murtagh, Jaime’s right-hand man, is kickass, Claire may or may not find another woman who has experienced the time travel of the stones, and the book ends with a major, and WONDERFUL, unexpected twist.

So now I have to read the next novel in the series: Voyager. I didn’t think I was going to continue reading the series, but after the last few paragraphs of Dragonfly in Amber, I won’t be able to help myself. I think I’ll try to finish a few more books before I start that beast, though.

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

It has been far too long since I blogged here, and I apologize for neglecting to write. I’ve been slacking and not reading much for the last few weeks, but to be fair, I WAS working on the 850-page Outlander novel. And it is only the first novel in a seven novel series. Yikes is right. I’m planning to follow this book with a few simple, simple reads — mostly romantic comedy type books — so that when I read the second book in the Outlander series I can be ready for another long haul.

Anyway, about Outlander. So good. Miss Recob suggested this read for me. It contained some of my favorite things: Europe, historical fiction, “magic” and a super attractive, accented lead male. Yep, sold.

The time travel aspect of this book is weird, I’m not going to lie. When I tried to tell people about it, they were like, “Wait, what?!” It is clearly important to the plot, but as you continue to read and become more involved in the characters, the time travel becomes more of a background plot line. It becomes more and more possible as you grow attached to Claire and Jaime.

Claire is this awesome, strong woman. You want things to go well for her. You want her to be loved and to succeed. She is pretty badass, too. Plus, she’s not a total bitty so you like her for that, too. Jaime, a ginger of course, is like the quintessential male hero. He is brave and strong and stubborn, but sweet and vulnerable and chivalrous as well. You WILL fall in love with this character. You will.

Another aspect of the book that made it hard to put down was the Scottish clan culture. It was SO interesting. Maybe it’s because I’ve never learned much about the history of Europe, but the whole clan loyalty thing astounds me. It sounds so wonderful and idyllic. And it kind of made me hate the British. But just a little…

Oh, so there’s this whole connection to Claire’s husband in the twentieth century that complicates the whole thing. His great-great-great grandfather or something is this horrible English soldier who tortures Jaime…in a very inappropriate way, might I add. He is like the perfect antagonist. You hate him, you really do, but there is like a MOMENT, a tiny little moment, when you feel sorry for him — it makes his character so much more realistic. Good job, Diana.

To sum it up, this book was definitely worth the read. It didn’t feel like 850 pages. Not at all. And I can’t wait to read the next one…because it’s in FRANCE. Yeah, winner.

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