Mini-Reviews: Two Historical-ish Novels That Didn't Work
I used to gobble up historical fiction, especially a million years ago when I was a teenager. History piqued my interest from a young age and I loved reading books with these settings. However, as an adult, I've found historical fiction a tougher nut to crack, with it being my most "did-not-finish" genre by a long mile.
I suspect my lack of engagement with historical fiction has to do with my having read a lot of excellent historical narrative non-fiction in college, graduate school and later. Top-notch works from that genre just grab me in a way that fiction often falters. It may sound snotty, but it's true.
However, I keep revisiting historical fiction because I want to revisit that love I once had--it used to thrill me to visit a time period other than my own and feel immersed in the experiences inherent to that time. Recently, I tried out a couple more historical novels, both YA, one a realistic novel set in 1938 Los Angeles, the other a historical with fantasy elements set in the pre-Civil War American South. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish either, but on the bright side, I think they both have audiences who will adore them.
Starstruck by Rachel Shukert
Starstruck has an appealing hook: It follows three teen girls--Margo, Gabby and Amanda--in 1938 Hollywood, each pursuing fame at Olympus Studios.
Starstruck has two stand-out elements.
The first being the setting. It's quite obvious that the author meticulously researched Hollywood in that era. I felt like I was experiencing the electrifying world of glamorous stars, wheeling and dealing, and so, so much promise right along with the girls. Modern-day Hollywood is so tacky and over-the-top, and in a sense, this historical version was too, but there's a manufactured elegance overlaid that makes it feel almost like the city is a movie set--and Starstruck captures that so, so well.
Additionally, I very much enjoyed the infusion of the slang and speech patterns of the time. That sounds like a little thing, but so many historical novels I've read have either ignored the speech of the time period, or gone way overboard to the point where it's challenging to become immersed in the story. Starstruck strikes a perfect balance, peppering the dialogue with terminology and conventions of the time.
So why was Starstruck--despite this praise--a did-not-finish novel for me?
Firstly, the story is told from three characters' points-of-view in third person and it's not a particularly long book, so it never grabbed me. Just when I'd start to understand one character, the narrative would jump to another character. I don't usually gripe about POV style, because I really feel like authors generally select the point-of-view that makes the most sense for the story, but Starstruck would have been a far better book if it had been from a single POV.
Secondly--and this is more of an intangible thing--Starstruck reads very much like a YA novel. I love YA, but my taste tends toward the upper- or mature-YA side of the scale, and there's something consciously young about this novel. Yes, I know that sounds vague, but it's something I do come across in YA novels regularly since there seems to be a breaking point of books geared toward a younger teen audience and those aimed at older teens. So, this isn't a criticism, just another reason why Starstruck didn't work for me.
I passed along my copy of Starstruck to the high school teacher whose classroom library we've adopted with the note that his freshmen would adore this book, and I would recommend it heartily to Actual Teens who are interested in Hollywood, popular culture or U.S. history.
Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
Jane Nickerson's Strands of Bronze and Gold is what I'd classify as "historical fantasy," which is a genre I'm fascinated by, and find appealing because it usually avoids the dreaded historical info-dump. (I cannot begin count the number of straight-up historical novels I've read in which I random character pops in for the exclusive purpose of info-dumping historical context.) I'm also a sucker for retellings--even when I don't like them, I'm always intrigued by authors' new takes on old stories--and Strands of Bronze and Gold revisits the Bluebeard tale, which is a particularly unusual and creepy story.
Strands of Bronze and Gold is set in the pre-Civil War Mississippi and is narrated by Sophie, who travels to Mississipi from Boston following the death of her father. She takes up residence with her godfather in this strange new world, which is so different from her life in the New England. Except, of course, there's a creepy mystery around her godfather and Sophie becomes entangled (that's the best term I can come up with for this relationship) in his life in a way that's not healthy and very unsettling.
Unfortunately, this intriguing premise was tempered by an excruciatingly slow start to Strands of Bronze and Gold.
By slow, I mean that at least half of the novel is taken up by extensive description of the setting and establishing the characters and backstory. While I do enjoy highly descriptive writing akin to Maggie Stiefvater's style, the execution in Strands of Bronze and Gold made the story read tediously rather than lush and atmospheric.
Additionally, the main character, Sophie, is strangely unobservant--particularly in the book's early chapters. Being a Northerner, there are elements of plantation life that I expected her to find strange or disconcerting and yet at first she seems to just accept it all as a matter of course. I wanted more cultural conflict and didn't get it (it does arise in the later chapters, however, so it's not as if it's entirely absent). Honestly, early in the novel, Sophie read as not the smartest tack in the box, and that's something I have a hard time reading.
There are some interesting discussions about the portrayal of slavery in Strands of Bronze and Gold.
I feel like I can't speak to that, as I gave up about two-thirds of the way in (right around when the paranormal element was introduced), but I highly recommend reading both The Book Smugglers' review and Heidi's review at Bunbury in the Stacks. They have different takes on the portrayal, and both are excellent food for thought. (I actually tried to revisit Strands after The Book Smugglers' review published, but my digital review copy had expired.)
In juxtaposition with the first book I reviewed in this post, I found myself wondering if Strands of Bronze and Gold would be a better novel if it was an adult novel, rather than YA. While it's true the YA doesn't shy away from intense or complicated subject matter, if Sophie had been a bit older, if she'd had a bit more life experience, if the relationships had been more adult, I believe this could have been a better story. I love YA, but not all stories need to fit within the framework of teen fiction, despite what current publishing trends may indicate.
Despite that Strands of Bronze and Gold didn't work for me, I may pick up the companion novel, The Mirk and Midnight Hour, out next year, because it's a retelling of Tam Lin, which is a ballad/story I've been fascinated by since working on my senior thesis in college.
Disclosure: I received review copies of both of these books.