Tag: historical fiction


Faulkner-esque Friday: Lincoln in the Bardo

Posted 17 February, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Faulkner-esque Friday: Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Published by Random House on February 14th 2017
Pages: 368
Goodreads
four-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

Oh my goodness, you guys. Saunders has completely blown me away with Lincoln in the Bardo. I described it repeatedly to an illiterate co-worker (love you B!) as The Sound and the Fury with ghosts. Saunders creates a beautifully atmospheric novel without sacrificing character development – though – it doesn’t happen the way you’d expect.

This novel is incredibly, well, novel. Saunders creates a world where we are able to see the main players reflected through the eyes of the dead who are obsessed with petty (and not so petty) wrongs that happened to them in life. Thus, they are stuck in ‘the bardo’. When Willie Lincoln dies, we get to see the confusion of a dead child along with the reflections of his father’s grief. What’s so interesting about the form of Lincoln in the Bardo, is that it’s written more like a Greek chorus, with other ‘characters’ explaining the action – rather than us seeing the action.

There are intermittent background chapters that appear to be excerpts from memoirs or history books about what is happening in the world outside the graveyard. Explaining the pressure of the Civil War on President Lincoln, the party that happened prior to Willie’s death, and other general historical snippets to give the rest of the novel context.

The concept of the bardo is fascinating enough it ran me down a brief wormhole of Tibetan death rituals and the such. I may have some future reading about that.

Overall, this is an excellent novel by an author who I believe will be considered one of the great authors of our lifetimes. It has a fresh form, an interesting story, atmosphere, and just generally fantastic writing. This is a book that literary fiction lovers absolutely must check out.

Does this sound too weird for you, Reader? Too hard? It’s definitely not a beach read, but it’s hard reading that I think is totally worth it.

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Whatever Wednesday: The Last Days of Night

Posted 14 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Whatever Wednesday: The Last Days of NightThe Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Published by Random House on August 16th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: Kindle Paperwhite
Goodreads
three-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

The Last Days of Night grabbed my attention before and at BEA. The clever title and the idea of a historical fiction account of the patent war over the lightbulb between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. What I am sad to report is that for me, The Last Days of Night didn’t really deliver on this rich subject matter.

Beginning with the characters. I felt like all of the characters up to and including Paul, Agnes, Tesla, and Westinghouse were incredibly static. The dialogue was rather stilted and quite frankly I didn’t really buy into much of it, though I knew that The Last Days of Night was based on real events. Much like the way many historical fiction novels pan out for me, I found the most interesting part of this novel was the afterword where Moore explains where his novel differed and expounded on the actual events of this case.

While I know that other readers found the book too technical, especially when it came to the litigation of the patent suit, that’s actually what I would have liked more of. To be fair, my opinion on that as an attorney may be really different than that of an average reader.

I said before that I was dubbing 2016 as the year of ‘could do worse on an airplane’ books. That’s squarely where The Last Days of Night falls. What about you, Reader? Has anyone else read this one?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in Moscow

Posted 5 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Published by Viking on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful character driven novel that really hit me square in the heart-space. To be fair, I only stood in line for Towles’ second novel because Catherine, Shannon, and other trusted bloggers ensured me that I should. A Gentleman in Moscow is not something I would have picked up on my own as I normally don’t go for historical fiction. But jeeze-o-pete, am I ever glad I got peer pressured into that signing line.

Despite being an American who spent twenty years as an ‘investment professional’, Towles has a real talent for rendering well formed and interesting characters from the Bolshevik revolution and also the U.S.S.R.. When my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more at the end – I consider that a win.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a sprawling novel a little in the vein of John Irving that follows a series of characters over decades. Count Rostov’s relationships with others at the Metropol hotel from the Bishop to Nina to Andrey are nearly flawlessly executed and completely believable. This novel is about the little things that make life worth living, if you’re looking for a plot driven action novel – you’re going to be disappointed with A Gentleman in Moscow. However, if you’re looking for a thoughtful character study that gives hope on the decency of humans as a whole – Towles has you covered.

I felt some sort of emotional connection with every character in this novel. If Towles were to write spin-offs describing the background and life trajectory of most of these characters — I would read those books.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an excellent novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What about you, Reader? Have you read Towles’ Rules of Civility? Does A Gentleman in Moscow sound like your bag? Who else has read this?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Mid-Week Mini Reviews: Where I am Underwhelmed

Posted 18 March, 2015 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

the girl on the train by paula hawkins  The Girl on the Train by: Paula Hawkins

Brief summary: Sad girl rides a train every day to work. Drinks something magical called gin and tonic in a can. Has blackouts. How much is she involved in the lives of her fellow lead characters? How much is she responsible for their misery?

Review: I’m in the minority in that I really didn’t particularly care for this book. I felt bad for Rachel, but I didn’t pity her. The rest of the characters were… meh. I also guessed the twist about 1/3 of the way through the book. If you’re going to write a book like this, you better be good about hiding your twists. (2.5/5 stars)

 

burial rites by hannah kent

Burial Rites by: Hannah Kent

Brief Summary: A family in 1820’s Iceland is forced to house a convicted murderess while she is awaiting her execution.

Review: This was another one of those books that was apparently written by a talented author that failed to live up to its hype or really connect with me. The problem is admittedly, probably me, as I am not a fan of historical fiction for the most part. I felt empathy for Agnes and did enjoy watching the evolution of the attitudes that the family had about her. Hoever, in the end I found the overall story just okay. (3/5 stars)

 

 

Is everyone hanging out without me?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by: Mindy Kaling

Synopsis: Mindy Kaling wrote a memoir.

Review: I like Kaling okay as an actress, though admittedly that’s limited to her performance in the American version of The Office. Though I would like to pick up The Mindy Project sometime soon. But the book – I’ve seen a lot of people compare this memoir to Fey’s Bossypants or Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, but I have to disagree. Kaling lacks both their talent for writing and their talent as comedians. I found most of the memoir to be pretty lackluster and not all that funny. Sorry Mindy. (2/5 stars)

 

What about you, Reader? What are some books lately that just haven’t lived up to the hype for you? What do you think about my assessment of these popular titles?

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April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Feminist Friday: The Paying Guests (A Tournament of Books Selection)

Posted 27 February, 2015 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Feminist Friday: The Paying Guests (A Tournament of Books Selection)The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Published by Penguin on September 16th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Literary
Pages: 576
Goodreads
three-stars

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

What I liked about this book was the way it shook up gender roles within the narrative of historical fiction. I liked that Frances wanted to be independent and live on her own and have a real career outside of being a housewife. I liked that the first ‘friend’ Frances had actually realized that vision. 

What I can’t say is if this gives an accurate portrayal of post WWI English life, the NYT says that it does, so maybe my issue is that I’m not a hard-core historical fiction fan, nor am I a fan of romance. I’d categorize The Paying Guests under both of these labels, with a little murder/mayhem thrown in.

Look. This book is a perfect example of a well written book that just wasn’t for me. I only picked it up because of the Tournament of Books and even then was hesitant to do so because I knew enough about the novel to feel like it wasn’t in my usual wheelhouse. (This is not to say that the reading made me uncomfortable in any way, just that it’s not on my interest radar.) 

So. If you’re a historical fiction buff with a penchant for a little romance on this side, this might be for you. 

How will this fare in the Tournament? I think that it’s a close call with it paired up against A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall – but I think that ultimately A Brave Man will prevail out of the first round. We shall see.

Fabulous differing perspectives found from:
Michael at Literary Exploration
Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books
Andi at Estella’s Revenge

How did you feel about The Paying Guests, Reader? When was the last time you read outside of your genre wheelhouse?

 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Must Read Monday: Us Conductors

Posted 9 February, 2015 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Must Read Monday: Us ConductorsUs Conductors by Sean Michaels
Published by Tin House Books on May 19th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 464
Goodreads
five-stars

Us Conductors is the imagined story of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the theremin--one of the first electric musical instruments--and his unrequited love for Clara Rockmore, its greatest player. A tale of espionage and electricity, it takes readers from the gardens of St. Petersburg to the Jazz-Age nightclubs of New York, through concert halls, speakeasies, and the Siberian wastes. Sean Michaels’s debut novel is based on the true events of Termen’s life: his invention of the theremin, in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution; his decade as a Manhattan celebrity and secret spy, jostling with Gershwin and building weapon detectors for Alcatraz; and his eventual return to Stalin’s USSR. As the novel reaches its devastating climax, Termen is sent out into the Gulag--first to a forced labor camp and then to a prison for scientists—and bears witness to some of the Cold War’s deepest atrocities. But like the theremin, Us Conductors is also an eerie and magical invention. Subtle, thrilling, and melancholy, it is a story of secrets, of human ingenuity, of the lengths one goes to survive, and, ultimately, of the undiminishing hope for love that keeps us alive.

This book has been flying under the radars of U.S. (and possibly most international) readers. Despite having won the Giller Prize in Canada, for some reason it has not managed to ‘make it’ outside of that country. I will forever be indebted to Tanya at 52 Books or Bust for convincing me to read this with her brilliant review of this novel.

This book meets at the intersection of music, science, history, and unrequited love. Despite the blurb, this is not a epistolary novel. It is one long narrative presented in two parts. Michaels veers between sections that are clearly written to Clara and expository sections where most of the action takes place. 

I found myself delighted with the ‘name dropping’ of 20’s and 30’s musicians that are now a part of classical and jazz music canon. There are discussions on Shostakovich, meetings with Glenn Miller. Many classical composers attended concerts by Termen while he was in New York – and quite frankly – it’s impressive that this man and his instrument that I had only vague knowledge of made such a huge impact on the music world at the time. His instrument, the theremin, is a testament to how closely music and science can intersect. 

But wait, there’s more. So you’re not interested in music or science? That’s okay too. This book covers the USSR’s cold war espionage and the horrors of the gulags under Stalin. While this is still primarily what I would consider a character driven novel, there is plenty of action and intrigue to go with it. The story is immensely readable and highly enjoyable. Despite this being a Canadian novel, it feels remarkably American. (Which is part of the reason I don’t understand why it hasn’t been more successful in the U.S.) 

This is a fabulous novel that transcends all the categories you want to try to put it in. Absolutely, without a doubt, you should read it. Since it is a true piece of historical fiction I found myself promptly ordering the non-fiction title Theremin: Ether, Music, and Espionage by: Albert Glinsky and requesting from the library the DVD for the 1993 documentary on the subject Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

I’ll leave you with this clip of Clara Rockmore (Termen’s unrequited love interest) playing Saint-Saën’s ‘The Swan’ which is one of the first pieces that Termen introduced to listeners when demonstrating his new instrument.

 
If you’re further interested in the theremin, here’s a Ted Talk/performance on it!
 
So, Reader, have you read anything that seems to be under the radar that is absolutely brilliant lately? 

 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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TLC Tuesday: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

Posted 23 September, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

TLC Tuesday: Gutenberg’s ApprenticeGutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
Published by HarperCollins on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Biographical, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Pages: 416
Goodreads
three-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, the wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corruption- riddled, feud-plagued Mainz to meet "a most amazing man."Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary—and, to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg's workshop, and he orders Peter to become Gutenberg's apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the "darkest art."As his skill grows, so too does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: printing copies of the Holy Bible. But when outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures—the generous Fust and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery.Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles in a battle that will change history . . . and irrevocably transform them all.

I’m having a hard time on where to start with this book, so I’m just going to have at it. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but historical fiction surrounding the single most important invention of the last millenia? Sure, let’s give it a shot.


Well here’s what I discovered about me: I like historical fiction more when history is merely a backdrop rather than historical fiction that revolves around actual events in history. My problem is that I get caught up in how much of this is true versus what is fictionalized … now I have to find another (non-fiction) book on the Gutenberg operation to learn more. I know, I shouldn’t bitch about being inspired to read more. Enough about my issues with historical fiction, let’s talk about the actual book.

I think that most people with their feet firmly in the (literary) historical fiction genre are going to love this book. It’s beautifully written about a time in history that is largely overlooked and/or romanticized. I don’t feel like Christie does either of these things here.  The story might have been better served by a brief introduction of the period at the beginning, but by the end of the novel it’s very clear what is going on politically in fifteenth century Germany. The Protestant Reformation is coming. The Reformation is largely considered to have really taken shape in 1517 when Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg.

Anyway. The novel is a frame story with an older, wiser Peter Schoeffer telling his tale to an abbot in 1485-1486. Most of the novel is a flashback to 1450-1454, the time it took to begin and finish 180 copies of what is now known as ‘The Gutenberg Bible’.

Christie gives us great cause to root for the coming reformation as the free-city of Mainz is held at ransom by the church who refuses to pay taxes so the peasants are starving. She makes a strong case throughout the novel of the beauty of the printed word – where everyone can have access to books – as being a gift from God. 

“It wasn’t just this book that … [they] had betrayed, but their whole status as free, thinking men – this precious gift in the working of the Bible they’d been granted.” 

Despite the historical backdrop I felt like this novel was exceptionally timely. An early quote from Chapter Four, Peter is speaking with the abbot, lamenting over ‘how little’ has been achieved with the invention of the Gutenberg press:

“The world is now flooded with crude words crudely wrought, an overwhelming glut of pages pouring from the scores of presses, springing up like mushrooms after rain. Churning their smut and prophecy, the rantings of anarchists and anti-christs – the scholars of the classics are in an uproar over how printing has defiled the book.”

Sound familiar? Yep. I’m thinking of Amazon and the outpouring of self-pubbed authors that have flocked there. I’m not going to get in to the Amazon/Hachette feud here but I freely admit that I love that Amazon has given self-pubbed authors such a voice. There’s a lot of crap out there, but there are books that never would have seen the light of day without Amazon. The one that comes to mind the most is Wool by Hugh Howey. 

The other issue that I had with this book was that at times it seemed to get overly technical. For hobbyists and artists who make and bind books in their spare time, this information is probably fascinating. I found it a bit technical and lost the thread of the story at times. Luckily this information seems to mostly abate in the second half of the novel which made for more enjoyable reading.

The two things I love the most about this novel kind of intersect. The first was the afterword – which felt more non-fiction than fiction to me, the second was the setting. Why? Because I’ve spent some considerable time in Mainz! I’ve seen one of the original 180 copies, only 48 which are known to have survived. I loved being able to recognize all the tiny obscure German cities that I visited while reading this book. Do you want pictures? Of course you do. I’ll spare you with only three.

 
All my Mainz pictures can be seen here, including bigger sizes of the ones above. 
Look how thin I was!
 

This is going to be an enjoyable read for historical fiction buffs and those interested in the technicalities of medieval bookmaking. It’s inspired me to add something to my bookish bucket list, which is to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair founded sometime before 1503 by Peter Schoeffer! 

So, Readers, are you a historical fiction buff? Does the intersection of the printed word, religious upheaval, and medieval politics intrigue you? 


I’m excited to be participating in the tour for Alix Christie’s Gutenberg Apprentice, be sure to check out the entire tour schedule here, it runs through 17 October. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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