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Reviews of Historical Fiction

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In-depth, Original Historical Fiction Reviews

Historical Fiction is defined as set more than 100 years ago, i.e., the 1910s, and earlier.
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More historical Fiction – Short Reviews – click here

I wish I could say nice things about this novel, because it is a quite clever, modern take on the knight’s quest of an Arthurian legend, with more than a nod in the direction of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The setting might be Medieval, but Phillips’ writing style is modern, and so are the ideas of the characters. There are evil knights, good knights, squires, damsels in distress, battles and castles and horses aplenty, and at the end of a fairly diverting few hours, I ended up wondering what the point was, other than entertainment.

The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips

This is a quite clever, modern take on the knight’s quest of an Arthurian legend, with more than a nod in the direction of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The setting might be Medieval, but Phillips’ writing style is modern, and so are the ideas of the characters. There are evil knights, good knights, squires, damsels in distress, battles and castles and horses aplenty. After having read the book a second and a third time, I finally realized where Phillips had placed the emphasis: it is a rather sneaky commentary on gender, gender roles and gender-swapping. I had not particularly noticed that at first, which says something about how subtly she worked it in. (Continue reading…)

Hardcover, Random House Canada, May 10 2016, 201 pp. The cover image of a painting by Iosif Serebryany of composer Dmitry Shostakovich, now in the Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is a writer who does not waste words. While his subjects are often difficult and his novels contain references to specialized subjects, his writing is accessible to all readers through his clear ideas, deep understanding, and well-considered use of language. He has a very, very fine turn of phrase, no doubt about that. While always approaching his novels with a sense of trepidation, hoping I could “get” them, I now think of them as treasure boxes – foreboding when closed but glorious once unlocked. That is what The Noise of Time is like. For me, it was a completely serendipitous discovery of the marvel that is Dmitri Shostakovich, and his music. (Continue reading…)

The Blue Fox, by Sjón, published 2003 by Bjartur; first published in the United States in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Trnslated by Victoria Cribb. Awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Titled “Skugga-Baldur” in Icelandic.

The Blue Fox, by Sjón

It is rare to find an arctic fox described as beautifully as in The Blue Fox. It is about the Archdeacon of a small village, “Baldur Skugasson”, who shoots and kills the fox, and pharmacist and botanist “Fridrik Fridjónsson”, who shelters a severely traumatized – raped, tortured and apparently dumb – girl, “Hafdís Jónsdóttir” on his farm. But it is also about the just desserts for cruelty and intolerance. Again, the story is set in specific periods in Icelandic history, 1883 and 1868, and accurately – bluntly – states how Icelanders of that time handled mentally ill and retarded people: they called them “eejits” (idiots) and sent them to live on people’s farms, much to the chagrin of the farmers. (pp. 63 – 64) The clue of the relationship between Baldur and Fridrik is in the names, the patronymic naming system: In Icelandic, a girl child’s surname or maiden name, is the first name of her father, with “dóttir” (daughter) added on. So Hafdis Jónsdóttir is the daughter of somebody with the first name of Jón. Same for boys, with “son” (son) added on. So, somebody called Fridjónsson is the son of Fridjón. So the clue there is the common name “Jón”. But “John’s daughter” in Icelandic means no more than “Icelander’s daughter” – it’s like “Jane Doe”. (Continue reading…)

The Whispering Muse, by Sjón. This edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 6, 2014. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Originally published in Icelandic as “Argóarflísin” by Bjartur, 2005.

The Whispering Muse, by Sjón

In The Whispering Muse, the first person narrator is “Valdimar Haraldsson”, who is something of a pompous ass who has spent his life obsessed with the connection between fish and the superiority of Nordic Culture, and was the publisher of an obscure publication on that subject. The elderly Haraldsson gets a trip on a voyage of a Danish merchant vessel, courtesy of a wealthy benefactor. He is a pretty pedantic fellow, and thinks nothing of lecturing to others, being convinced of his own importance. He dutifully records the everyday happenings on the vessel, on which he is the only non-commercial passenger. He does not notice that, right off the bat, the whole thing is odd. He is, for one, in a luxurious two-room cabin. And, oddest yet, the first mate, called “Caeneus”, is the story-teller or chief entertainer at the captain’s table every night. Caeneus gets his inspiration by holding up a small piece of wood to his ear. The wood whispers to him, so it seems, and it is the “Whispering Muse” of the book title. (Continue reading…)

Moonstone -The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. First American edition published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2016. Originally published as “Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til” by JPV/Forlagið, 2013.

Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón

This novel is set in 1918 Reykjavik and has themes of homosexuality, the first movies, the great Spanish flu epidemic, the arrival of the independence of Iceland, the eruption of the local volcano, Katla, the First World War, the cruel treatment of lepers and homosexuals, and the Icelandic obsession over the “perversion” apparently caused by watching too many films. Yes, all that. The main character is a teenage prostitute, a boy who roams the city getting money for sex with sailors and the men of the city who come from all levels of society. The sex scenes are depicted in detail, but so plainly (as Sjon puts it, “without ceremony”), that after the first shock to the reader it seems business as usual. The boy in question, “Máni Steinn” (literally in Icelandic, moon/máni + stone/steinn = moonstone) seems a one-dimensional figure. (Continue reading…)

eBook published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2015, 864 pages.

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina de Robertis

There is a lot of tango-ing in this novel, as well as an eyebrow-raising amount of erotica. I bought it because I had enjoyed the sweeping family drama of De Robertis’s previous novel, The Invisible Mountain. I have learned to do the Argentine Tango, so I expected a novel about the dance. What I did not expect in this novel was the theme of drag artists in the history of the tango. Yet, despite the shock to the reader’s system, De Robertis succeeds in this novel by stimulating the reader’s mind though her descriptions of the development of the tango as an art form, the dancers and performers of the tango, the history of drag artists’ involvement in the tango, and the history of Buenos Aires. (Continue reading…)

ViceroyOfQuidahThe Viceroy of Ouidah, by Bruce Chatwin

The Viceroy of Ouidah, like The High Mountains of Portugal, paints a harrowing picture of slavery in the Portuguese and Brazilian colonies in Africa. The Viceroy of Ouidah is probably the most unforgettable depiction of white men losing their minds when trying to deal with “Darkest Africa”, centuries ago, that has ever been written. Let’s just say, Africa wins out. Think Apocalyse Now’s jungles, despair and death, Africa-style. The very slim novel, a mere 160 pages in paperback, was published in 1980 and tells the story of a Brazilian who tries to run an outpost for slave trading in 1812 in Dahomey, what is now Benin, on the west coast of Africa. (Continue reading…)

Hard cover, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: the title of the book and the setting: First, there are mountains in Portugal, but they’re not that high. I’m sure Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal has by now caused the northern parts of Portugal to be overrun with readers clutching copies of his book, desperately searching not for Pokémon but for a little village and a little church with an odd altarpiece in the far northern mountain ranges, such as they are. But Portugal is pretty flat compared to, let’s say, Spain, its neighbour in southern Europe. So, if you are looking for a high mountain range in northern Portugal, to where the luckless character in the first story in this book drives in his Peugeot in 1904, the most likely spot would be the Montesinho Natural Park, in northeastern Portugal. (Continue reading…)

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka (McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., 2015)

The Piano Maker, by Kurt Palka

The Piano Maker could have been so much less, and in that way, been so much more. I thought that the author, who has written five novels before this one, would have been experienced enough to have realized the benefits of a simple structure focused on a primary theme. But in stead, there are too many themes that do not seem properly integrated, resulting in a melodramatic tone. The title, The Piano Maker, seems to be an afterthought rather than a sustained theme, while in actual fact, the history of pianos and their makers is fascinating – as I found out when I researched the provenance of my own piano. There are parallel themes of art theft and smuggling, war, workplace safety, even palaeontology, French Indochina, France at the end of the 19th century, the French in Africa, and quite a lot of religion (religious music, liturgy, priesthood, etc.) The main idea is probably “survival” or “closure” or the redeeming value of confession, and the fact that I cannot pinpoint exactly what the point is, is the problem. (Continue reading…)

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., Toronto, First Canadian Edition, 2015

Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck

Ekbäck describes the mountain and the surrounding villages and homesteads where this novel is set as if she had been there, walked every path, skirted every lake, sat on every ridge and viewed every view a hundred times. She has a prodigious imagination and an outstanding talent for descriptions that transport the reader into a very different time and place – Lapland in 1717. The atmosphere in the novel is gloomy, but riveting. She combines a good mystery with some pastoralism and a fair dose of magic realism. Her facts are pretty accurate for this particular period in Sweden’s history – the setting is well researched. But it is Ekbäck’s obvious affinity with the landscape that sets this novel apart from others in the genre of Cold Climate Mysteries. Her depictions of the snow melting in the spring, for instance, are well observed, beautiful and threatening at the same time. (Continue reading…)

Quercus Books, London, UK, 2011

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings has faith, love and alienation as its themes. What a pleasure this dry-looking novel turned out to be; very gripping and thought-provoking in plot, characterization and setting, yet restrained and subtle in writing style. This book looks unglamorous, with a plain printed hard cover illustrated with an engraving of a sailing ship on rough seas. There was mention in the blurb on the back of the book of some haunting, or fearsome thing, on the island where the novel is set, the islands of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, as northern and as remote a place as you could find outside of the Arctic Circle. The reader finds out, not so much during the novel as towards the end, what the haunting is that drives the young evangelical minister from the Church of Scotland to the islands, and again, off the islands. What changes during his time there, and what does he and his wife achieve?  (Continue reading…)

Review of Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

Vienna Nocturne, by Vivien Shotwell

A nocturne is a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. And while Shotwell’s novel has a romantic cover, all lace and gold, it has pretty disturbing passages as well, and the title should’ve forewarned me of that. Still, to have bodice-ripping scenes in a novel about a serious subject like 18th century opera was a bit unexpected. Fortunately, the novel has many moments where the author’s knowledge of music and opera allows her to write genuinely heartfelt and lyrical descriptions of music and its effects on both listeners and performers. (Continue reading…)

The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

Avery had some stiff competition with this one. I had laboured through her novel set in Japan, The Teahouse Fire, reviewed here, which had won her the Lesbian Debut Fiction prize at the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Barbara Gittings Literature Award for best gay or lesbian novel in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards. Disappointingly, this novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, is less about the art of Tamara de Lempicka, than about the affair between her and her model named Rafaela, the nude of the title. (Continue reading…)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman represents the best of Magic Realism authors since Marquez. This time she dispenses with magic and the novel is a straightforward historical novel set in a Coney Island boardwalk freak show in the 1900s. It is part romance, part murder mystery, part history of New York from its rural beginnings, part history of the labour movement after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, part a history of photography, and part history of freak shows, circuses and human curiosities (and their demise). Altogether, there are too many threads and themes. (Continue reading…)

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska, was educated there, and lives there. Ivey was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for this, her first novel. Particularly because this is a debut novel, I read it very critically, but it is excellent. It takes some skill to spin a compelling tale of marriage and survival in Alaska in the 1920s out of a Russian folk tale of The Snow Maiden, Snegurochka, in which the sweet Snow Maiden is born out of snow and comes to bring joy to a childless couple, until she eventually melts and disappears. This is different from The Snow Child folk tale. (Continue reading…)

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Horan’s first historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, failed to entice me, I suspect because she kept so very closely to the very well publicized lives and affairs of the famous architect. I felt I got no deeper into the psyche of the lead characters than that which I had really read and known. Loving Frank (reviewed here) being a novel, not a biography, I felt Horan could have digressed a bit more, taken a little more poetic licence, done a bit more interpretation. In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, again, Horan writes about a famous person, writer Robert Louis Stevenson – and this time she got the balance between historical fact and fiction right. (Continue reading…)

This Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Despite being 676 pages of dense text accompanied by glowing reviews from major newspapers and magazines, this biographical novel about historians looking for Vlad Ţepeş, (Vlad the Impaler), is underwhelming. Part of the problem is that Kostova cannot quite sustain the suspense or the tone throughout the complicated plot and numerous characters and settings. The novel is told from many different perspectives. Kostova occasionally dispenses with any indications of who’s talking, and simply goes into the 3rd person as the reportage of past events gets too complicated. (Continue reading…)

The book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist

The Book about Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist

Only when you are about halfway through this book do you think of checking on the cover and title page to see whether it is fiction or non-fiction. And it clearly states – “A Novel” and “fiction”. It is a feature of Enquist’s writing that he builds fascinating fiction around fairly small and obscure historical references. In this case the reference is a painting by Andre Brouillet, that depicts a female patient of 19th century Neurologist, Dr. J.M. Charcot. There are two themes, that of Marie Curie, and the diaries of Blanche Wittman, a patient of Dr. Charcot. Enquist weaves these lives together in such an enthralling and infuriating way that the reader wants to believe it is all fact. (Continue reading…)

The Princess of Nowhere, by Lorenzo Borghese

The Princess of Nowhere, by Lorenzo Borghese

Just reading the author’s name is enough to conjure of visions of illustrious Italian power and wealth, as any history buff could tell you. But what you don’t expect is more than competent, even skilful, writing from a Borghese descendant who now makes a living selling a line of luxury pet products, and who is a New Yorker. The prince’s biography does not inspire confidence in his literary abilities, but he does have the most important qualification to produce a novel on this particular subject:- a direct line of descent from Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose tragic life and arresting beauty made her the femme fatale of her day. (Continue reading…)

(Ballantine Books, 2008) It’s hard to be sympathetic towards the main character of this novel, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the lover of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (Apart from this, the unpronounceable name, Mamah, sticks skew in your head every time you read it.) With any historical novel, you have to consider the balance of historical, realistic accuracy (in the events, characters, spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age) and invented history and fantasy – the novel’s development of a representative, organic artwork that captures the fractures, contradictions, and problems of a time period – the degree of literary license, if you will. Often, while the level of historical accuracy is not high, but acceptable, the art of the writing makes it pleasing and engrossing to the reader. Otherwise, a novel might contain such huge historical inaccuracies, especially anachronisms, that it loses artistic integrity. However, this novel would seem to err on the side of accuracy – it is highly accurate, even with regard to the unpronounceable Mamah, since this love affair was extensively publicised in the press, and documented in diaries, but the element of re-imagining or interpretation is so low that it is a bit mundane. Mamah Cheney was very much a product of her time – constrained by morals and a judgmental society, unable to act freely or show true passion or emotion. (Her and Wright’s biggest fear seemed to be that their affair would be exposed in the press.) While the affair drags on for decades, the writer only occasionally describes it in such a way as to move the reader. The accuracy extends to the last pages – Cheney died in a gruesome murder in the beautiful house that Wright had built for them, and since the reader knew this beforehand, the even the murder scene was a bit underwhelming. While the characters of Cheney and Wright are not very engaging, the book does stimulate interest in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Horan deals with his legacy with respect and fidelity.

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards the main character of this novel, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the lover of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (Apart from this unpronounceable name, Mamah, which sticks skew in your head every time you read it.) Looking at this, as with any historical novel, you have to consider the balance of historical, realistic accuracy and invented history and fantasy – the degree of literary license, if you will. This novel would seem to err on the side of accuracy – it is highly accurate, but the element of reimagining or interpretation is so low that it is a bit mundane. (Continue reading…)

Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie

Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie

Dai Sijie wrote the moving, simple and delicate Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress, a debut novel which has gained cult status since its publication and which has a subtext of the works of the French romantic author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). This unusual convergence of western literary references and eastern subject matter and style, made Sijie’s first novel instantly successful, and in Mr Muo and his Travelling Couch he repeated this recipe of multiple subtexts. However, at first glance, it seems he was not as successful this time around. (Continue reading…)

The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

“The Teahouse Fire”, set in Japan, is, for a change, not set in a geisha house in 18th or 19th century, or earlier. At the time of its publication, readers of this well-mined genre would have been over-familiar with the reference framework of authors like Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha – 1999), Sayo Masuda (Autobiography of a Geisha – 2005) and Liza Dalby (The Tale of Murasaki – 2001). The cover of the book, of a girl in a classical kimono, sets the scene for the milieu of a geisha in Japan before World War II. However, then Avery surprises the reader, since the art in question is not that of the geisha, but the tea ceremony, one of the oldest traditions and art forms of Japan and presented solely by men. (Continue reading…)

More Historical Reviews – Short reviews



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