All tagged Historical

Review: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Caroline Starr Rose brings a historical mystery to life in her beautifully crafted novel in verse, Blue Birds.

It is 1587 and 117 English men, women and children are left on the lush island of Roanoke near the shores of what is now Virginia.They expected fertile soil and friendly people. They were not disappointed in the land. But, the friendly Native people had become understandably jaded. The English who came before them brought disease and death to their island. 

Guest Post: Caroline Starr Rose on Young Readers and the Magic of Verse Novels

Today I'm thrilled to welcome to Clear Eyes, Full Shelves novelist Caroline Starr Rose, author of the critically-acclaimed May B and a new novel, Blue Birds, both middle grade historical novels in verse.

I posed this question to her: Some of my favorite verse novels are in the middle grade category--why do you think the verse format works so well for young readers? And she had a great answer for me!

Young readers are still open minded. They haven’t been around long enough to decide they don’t like a certain writing style before trying it. While I’ve heard adults talk about how strange a verse novel looks on the page and feels as reading material, I’ve never heard a kid say this. 

Stream It Saturday: Manhattan (TV)

In my continuing selfless service to the world (ahem), I'm always looking for the next awesome thing to stream. And, of course, I must share my finds with you fabulous folks. Hence, Stream-It Saturday.

Check out all my previous recommendations over here. 

Manhattan is the little show no one heard of when it debuted last year on WGN. The drama is set in 1940s Los Alamos, New Mexico and focuses on both family life in this weird little outpost and the professional drama among the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. 

Recommendation Tuesday: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.

View all of the past recommendations over here. 

It's not often I find a work on literary fiction that has a story as compelling as its prose--hence, I don't recommend it very often. Sparkling, thoughtful writing is wonderful, but it feels awfully vapid when the story falters. Or it's filled with dull Middle Aged Man Angst.

Discovering Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You was an unexpected surprise, as result. While imperfect (as all novels are), it hits so many notes that make worth checking out, even if you normally avoid literary fiction. It's a historical novel, though the 1970s time period is one of the book's less-developed aspects, but more than anything it's a story of family and marriage. 

Smart & Satisfying: No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah Maclean

Or, in which Sarah reads a historical romance... and actually likes it!

My complicated relationship with historical fiction has been well-documented on this blog at this point, I believe. Despite that I'm a colossal history nerd, I just have the hardest time finding historical fiction that works for me--as a novel-lover and a history dork, I find that the balance rarely hits the right notes. 

Historical romance is even a harder genre for me. I'm an extremely picky romance reader as it is, and the settings (Regency England, primarily) and class issues (nearly exclusively featuring the titled classes) just don't appeal to me, and neither do the gender dynamics (power, female virginity obsession, etc.) endemic to the time periods popular in historical romance. 

However, I also try to keep an open mind and when so many people with excellent taste rave about an author, I'll give one of their books a shot, even if it's something I would normally shy away from. 

Such is the case of Sarah Maclean's No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, which surprised me with its awesomeness. 

3 Recommended Creepy Reads

I enjoy novels with a bit (or a lot) of the occult and ghost-y elements. As you know, I am a fan of the creepy, so those elements fit the bill perfectly. I've recently read three that I enjoyed and thought I'd share my thoughts with you.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

•Portland, Oregon–––––October 14, 1918•
The day before my father's arrest, I read an article about a mother who cured her daughter of the Spanish flu by burying her in raw onions for three days. 

Thus begins a truly fine fantastic debut novel about sixteen-year old Mary Shelley Black. Her father’s been arrested for treason, her boyfriend’s fighting overseas, influenza threatens to deplete the population–it’s a fearsome world, a bleak reality for Mary.

Cat Winters captivated me with her unusual historical novel, In The Shadow of Blackbirds.

Interspersed throughout the book are photographs of the era. Images of this bleak period in American history bring stark life to the words skillfully woven into a story of a young girl who sees the spirit of her lost love crying out to her as she struggles to maintain her own balance in a world twisted with fear and injustice.

Read the rest! 


Verse Week Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

Before putting my fingers to the keyboard to write my review of May B., a middle grade novel in verse by Caroline Starr Rose, I went to the Poetry Foundation's website to see if my confusion between poetry and prose could be clarified. The answer I found didn't particularly surprise me.

To put it in the simplest of terms, it's all about snobbery. Poetry, according its aficionados, stands several rungs above verse. Verse does not--according to them--employee the sophisticated use of language that poetry does.

Alrighty then...

Keats apparently writes poetry and Robert Service apparently writes verse. What's the difference? I've yet to answer that one but I will say that I read Service for pleasure, for the joy of his playful and often robust use of language. Keats I read as assigned work in my studies at the universities where I earned my degrees. I enjoy and appreciate Keats, so I am not picking on his work, I promise. My point is about the joy of language, pure and simple.

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.

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

The clouds shifted, and the glow of sun brightened on my face. “But she's from a really wealthy family, a good family, and she's a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts. She even flies a plane. Charlotte kept telling me that I should apply to Smith. I know it sounds ridiculous, me being able to go to a prestigious school like that, but she sent me all the information.”

Suddenly, the insanity of the whole thing came into focus, and I nearly laughed.

“But for some reason, I began to want it, really badly. I told Willie, and she was mad. She said I had to go to school here in New Orleans, that I was out of my league trying to get into a college like that.”

Willie Woodley, the madam who owns and officiates over a high class brothel on Conti Street in New Orleans loves Josie Moraine as only a mother can love a child, love that never came from Josie's mother.  Set in the milieu unique to the fifties, Out of the Easy brings a flavor and cast of characters that only that time and place can offer. 

The novel's setting and characters could have been a humdrum of stereotypes, but in the hands of  gifted writer, Ruta Sepetys, who wrote the excellent Between Shades of Gray, it's the polar opposite.

Josie and Willie stole my heart. I cheered for them; shed a tear or two for them when I despaired for them; and most of all, believed in them.

Josie's mother, Louise, has no redeeming qualities. She's a prostitute with no qualms about who she uses for her own purposes, which is mainly to use others to get what she wants--money and things. At age seven Josie comes to live in Willie's brothel with her mother who has no consideration for what Josie will see or experience. This house frames its beguiling women in dark brocade curtains, crystal chandeliers and paintings on the walls of nude women with expansive nipples.

Josie much prefers the local bookstore. She wanders about the shop in awe of the many books that rise above her like skyscrapers. Charlie, the owner, notices this quiet child. He befriends her and by the time she reaches eleven, he's offered her a room in his attic. To Josie, it's a secret garden filled with the smell of paper, the whisper of pages turning and the kindness of a truly fine person.

Neither the kindness of Charlie nor the love of Willie will protect Josie from the inescapable reality of her life.

Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

Lily was a spirited woman, a passionate teacher and talker who explained in great detail what had happened to her, why it had happened to her, what she'd done about it, and what she's learned from it, all with the idea of imparting life lessons to my mother.

Jeannette Walls placed this statement about her grandmother in the Author's Note at the end of her fabulous novel, Half Broke Horses. On the cover above the title in all capitals are the words A TRUE LIFE NOVEL.

Walls' "true life novel" presents the events in the life of Lily Casey Smith, a colorful and fascinating person spicing the pages of this book. This retelling of stories from her family's oral history were handed down through the years, and Walls admits that she does take a few storyteller's liberties.

Growing up in west Texas where horses and buckboards were the only mode of transportation, Lily learned to live tough, face obstacles and come out swinging regardless of what she faced. Her father spouted philosophy like a flash flood of insight that went straight into the fiber that made Lily Casey one of the strongest, most durable individuals in Texas. 

“Most important thing in life.” he would say, "is learning how to fall.”
“If I owned hell and west Texas,” he said, “I do believe I'd sell west Texas and live in hell.”
“When God closes a window, he opens a door. But it's up to you to find it.”

Lily's mother, though, stood in stark contrast to her father. Pious to a fault, she was a woman certain that everything that happened came straight from the hand of God. 

If you want to be reminded of the love of the Lord, Mom always said, just watch the sunrise. And if you wanted to be reminded of the wrath of the Lord, Dad said, watch a tornado.

Half Broke Horses takes the reader on a sweeping, panoramic ride.

Review: Love in the Years of Lunacy by Mandy Sayer

Reading Mandy Sayer’s Love in the Years of Lunacy was almost like reading two different novels. The first was a fascinating look at wartime Sydney, Australia. The second was an odyssey into the implausible. 

Set in 1942, Love in the Years of Lunacy is told mostly from the point of view of eighteen year old Pearl, a bit of a wild-child jazz musician. She plays saxophone in an all-girl band and one night, while playing in an underground club, she meets James Washington, an African-American GI and phenomenal musician. The two quickly begin a whirlwind romance until that is cut short by the news that James is being shipped out to fight in New Guinea. Pearl does something incredibly impulsive/batshit crazy to reunite with James. 

The beginning of Love in the Years of Lunacy introduces its odd narrative structure—one often used in historical fiction that rarely works for me.

In opens with a writer (it’s always a writer—and in this case the writer name-checks the Australian publisher of Love in the Years of Lunacy as his publisher) in modern day discovering a recording of a story told by his aunt (Pearl), instructing him to novelize her story so that it can be shared—these sections are told in first person. Then it switches to the 1940s and is written in third person, but from Pearl’s point-of-view. This is a narrative style that really bothers me. 

I’m trying to look on the positive side. I guess writing this book has allowed me to understand the complexities of [Pearl] and my background better than I ever have before and, by doing so, I begin to understand myself more clearly—a person who’s never felt completely at home…

It wasn’t until I read this book that I was able to really get my head around why this style of storytelling irks me, but I’ve finally hit on it: by framing a story of a historical figure around a contemporary person’s “discovery” it feels as if the main historical story is diminished. Why can’t a historical narrative stand on its own? In this novel there are some small things related to identity that are relevant to the contemporary discover-er, but really, Love in the Years of Lunacy was not better because of those elements. (And, honestly, they kind of troubled me—see my spoiler discussion here.)

I am fairly certain, that if the novel was told in a straightforward manner, I would have enjoyed it far more. 

Regardless of this frustrating structure, I was captivated by Pearl and James’ story amidst that backdrop of wartime Sydney. 

Review: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis LehaneI’ve long been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s novels.

I was solidly hooked once Sarah introduced me to his first book, A Drink Before the War, so by the time I held his fourth novel Gone, Baby, Gone (which is also an excellent movie), the hook was set. When I saw he had a new book, Live By Night, coming out, I preordered it with great expectations.

I have no concerns about disappointment when a Lehane book is in my grip.

Live By Night features minor characters created in The Given Day, his lengthy previous novel, though it is not necessary to read that novel prior to reading this one. Lehane’s writing treats his readers with exact historical background. While reading The Given Day, I would pause in my reading to Google details from the book. They were always meticulously researched.

Yes, there was really a Molasses Flood in 1919 Boston. That’s right. Two-and-a-half million gallons of crude molasses heated up to the point where an eruption from the tower holding it resulted in a thick, hot flood of the sticky stuff traveling at 35 miles per hour with waves of eight to fifteen feet. Twenty-one people died in the scalding river of molasses. 

I admit that it took me twice as long to read The Given Day than it should have—all that fact checking got in the way.

Review: Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Strings Attached by Judy BlundellStrings Attached depicts the fifties in all its grime with an edgy tilt highlighting the days of the McCarthy Era hearings on a witch hunt for communists. This era of bomb drills, mobsters and a rapidly changing America where nothing is as it once was but no one knew where it was heading comes alive in Judy Blundell’s 2011 novel.

Kit Corrigan, a sassy redheaded triplet whose mother died giving birth to her three children, is a multi-dimensional and fascinating character who falls in love with dance at a young age. Life for her plays out in terms of dance movements. Metaphorically, it’s as if she’s dancing allegro and flies into the arms and heart of love as if she’s a heroine in a tragic ballet.

Strings Attached travels with Kit both physically and emotionally as she leaves Providence, Rhode Island for a career as a Lido Club dancer in New York, becomes embroiled in the underbelly of  mobster life, finds her way back to Providence and the strength of family while facing the secrets that brought them sorrow and tore them apart.

Indeed, there are strings attached in many ways, good and bad.

{List-O-Rama} Memorable Reads: 1st Half of 2012, Take 2

Well, CEFS contributors may not be known for their “blind acquiescence” but I’ve finally managed to scrape up a list of my favorite books so far in 2012.

Note: we just happened to randomly remember a few of the same books. Please disregard any repeats, as they have absolutely nothing to do with Sarah’s excellent taste. Her head is big enough already.

YA Novels

Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols - I finished this book last night or, more accurately, early this morning. When a book is better than sleep you know you’ve found a keeper. Echols does an excellent job portraying some wounded, imperfect characters you can’t help but love. {Review | Amazon | Goodreads}

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - If Nicholas Sparks drives you nuts, this is the book for you. It’s an incredibly moving, honest, cliche free exploration of illness and mortality. And it still managed to make me laugh (sometimes through the tears.) Though I generally prefer less serious subject matter, this book is special, and worth the red eyes. {Review | Amazon | Goodreads}

Urban Fantasy

Fair Game by Patricia Briggs - In an attempt to save up for my trip to Europe, I decided not to buy the insanely expensive ebook (Sarah complained about this too) and instead got on the endless waiting list at the library. I lasted several days before I online stalked the non-holdable library copy, and raced in to snatch it up like the desperate reader I am. This is devotion. As the third novel in Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series, this book explores some of the ramifications of earlier plot developments. And yes, it was worth the trouble. {Amazon | Goodreads}

{Review} The Wicked and The Just by J. Anderson Coats

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

“To the Victor Belong the Spoils” and “Winner Takes All” are common sayings. It makes sense on some levels. Someone wins, someone loses. Winner takes, loser gives.

In the context of Monopoly, it’s all fun and games. But what about when it comes to occupying someone’s land in real life? Or taking over their culture? Stripping them or their home? And what about their livelihood? Or their mere survival? 

J. Anderson Coats thoughtfully navigates these thorny questions in her thoroughly-researched historical novel, The Wicked and the Just, which is told from the eyes of two girls on opposites ends of the English occupation of Wales during the late 13th century. 

Cecily, an English girl, has long fantasized about the day when she would become the Lady of Edgely Manor. But when a court rules in favor of her uncle Robert, she and her father are left landless.

Facing the choice of being steward of the manor of which he was formerly the master and becoming a burgess in Wales, with none of the financial and military obligations of a manor lord, Cecily’s father chooses the latter. He packs up their belongings in Coventry, where he and Cecily have been living while awaiting the verdict on Edgely manor, and they begin their life in Caernarvon, the heart of occupied Wales. 

[Editor’s Note: Since Grave Mercy has benefited from a colossal publicity push, we thought it would be worth having a second opinion on this book. Interestingly, Sandra’s take is quite similar to Laura’s. Warning: Some may read this review as slightly spoilerish.]

Set in medieval Brittany, Grave Mercy’s timeless theme of abuse and escape gives the story of Ismae, Death’s Daughter, a contemporary storyline that unfortunately does not work, even when I did my best to employ the concept of Suspension of Disbelief.  

Mortain, the  God of Death, feeds off belief in and worship of him much as humans  nourish themselves  with bread and meat. Without belief and worship, Mortain would starve for lack of sustenance. Ismae Rienne, who Robin LaFevers created in Grave Mercy, bears a deep, red stain from her left shoulder to her right hip,

…a trail left by herbwitche’s poison that [her] mother used to expel [her] from her womb. 

The expulsion failed.

Life for Ismae’s mother was too ugly, dangerous and harsh to bring a child into. Yet, Ismae survived with a mark upon her signifying her role as the daughter of death, Mortain’s progeny. Her earthly father did not perceive the mark of the God Mortain upon her as significant, rather he viewed her as his personal whipping post, something  he could pummel his fists upon thus feeding  his cruel streak.

I felt absolute horror for Ismae.