Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Are You Ready For a Little Twain and Steinbeck?

Two dear friends of mine recently gave me several new books to adopt. Among them were The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Having never read anything by either of these classic authors (I know!) I was ready for something spellbinding.moonisdown

Unfortunately, TMID left me disappointed. I was hoping for something completely different than was Steinbeck’s intention, although it is a great piece of war propaganda and it undoubtedly caused a huge uproar during WWII. It was obviously a thinly veiled re-imagination of the Nazis. What made it so scandalous, however, is that rather than being portrayed as death-dealing automatons, the Nazis were just… young men. Young men that craved love and wanted to go home. Still, from a literary perspective, I found it pretty dry until the end.

conn-yank-rqr05mACYIKAC was a bit more fast-paced. It told of an average Joe from the late 1800’s being mysteriously transported back into Camelot. Naturally, with his “modern” knowledge, he was quickly deemed a wizard and become one of the most powerful men in England.

The idea of advertisements on knight’s shields and all the wonders of the 1800’s was certainly an entertaining idea. But… oftentimes Twain’s passages were long and confusing and I had to re-read them to understand what was going on. I also didn’t like that how the protagonist got to Camelot was never explained. For some reason, missing this vital detail, I couldn’t sink into the world as seamlessly. But, of the two, I definitely enjoyed this one better.

3 knights errant and lonely Nazis of 5

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The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel

A long time ago, when I worked at Books a Million, I used to have a bunch of older ladies come in all the time to buy some installment of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series. They always raved about how good it was and how they absolutely couldn’t wait for the next one.

Sadly, I wasn’t nearly as enthralled. tumblr_m4swhv7jpB1qb75x2o1_500

Set sometime in prehistory, Ayla is a human girl that is found by a group of Neanderthals. To them her blonde hair, blue eyes, and small head are freakishly ugly, but the childless medicine woman takes pity on her and raises her as her own. She grows up alongside the Clan and learns their ways. But no matter how hard Ayla tries, she will never truly be one of them.

Blah blah growing pains blah blah outsider blah.

I felt too outside the story to really care about what happened to Ayla, and the simplistic/childish writing style put me off. I’m kind of a nosy person, so I’m half tempted to read another in the series just to see if I like it better, but eh… We evolved for a reason.

You can skip it.

2 paw prints of 5


Happy Halloween, my darlings!

In honor of my favorite holiday, I read a couple of creeptastic books to review for you. Unfortunately, I’ve been more freaked out by looking at my bank statement than I was by these two books.

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The Ghosts of St. Augustine by Dave Lapham was one my parents got for me at least fifteen years ago. We were in–you guessed it!–St. Augustine at the time, exploring that awesome little bit of America. I’m a total wuss when it comes to scary stuff, but this book left me wanting more. It was a great compilation of historical ghostly visitations, but it was pretty poorly written and I never felt weird reading it alone. (I really want something that is going to scare me while I’m in a brightly lit room sitting next to someone, so let me know if you have any suggestions!) One of the stories was actually told from the ghost’s point of view and then never explained afterwards, so it kind of made the whole collection lose credibility.

Definitely pass on this one.

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I had high hopes for The Little Big Book of Chills and Thrills edt by Lena Tabori. It had all the makings of an interesting compilation: recipes, short stories, poems, strange illustrations, and even magic tricks. Unfortunately the magic tricks were lame, the short stories were old hat, and the recipes and poems weren’t creepy at all, obviously. I felt like this book was more like a little big waste of my time.

Skip them both.

2 haunted houses of 5


Animal Farm by George Orwell

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Oh, George Orwell… You crazy old coot. Animal Farm was not at all what I expected, yet TOTALLY enhanced by the rad illustrations. I read the 50th anniversary edition–depicted by none other than the famous Ralph Steadman–most well-known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson. His addition of chicken cloacas, donkey penises, and pig anuses definitely livened things up a bit… (No, but seriously…)

Orwell’s classic tale is an allegory of government control and the gradual capitulation of power by the ignorant masses. By letting others lead us without question, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable to manipulation and absolute control. The poor dumb farm animals are us, and the pigs in power are our “leaders.”

They always have our best interests at heart, right?

I’m really not one for waxing political, but I think this story is a simple way to understand what happens when we are too eager for someone else to take the reins. *neigh*

4 work horses of 5

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin goes down in history as one of the most controversial books of all time. Not only was it about the horrors of slavery and the wrongdoings of the South, it was also written by a woman in 1852. Many say it’s the spark that ignited the Civil War. Women didn’t do things like that back then. I’m sure HBS was shunned from all the snooty needlework groups in town. 

Pretty deep stuff.

UTC is kind of incomparable as far as a regular book review goes. Since it was written so long ago during such a pivotal time, it will forever go down as a classic. Very controversial, but a classic nonetheless. Many schools have banned it because of it’s explicit use of the “N” word and it’s gruesome punishment scenes. I personally think everyone should have to read it.

America’s past is an ugly one, but we can’t shy away from it or let it be forgotten.

The reality of our country is that it was founded using some pretty terrible practices. It wasn’t founded on kindness and consideration and baby unicorns. It was built on the backs of African slaves–humans treated little better than farm animals. Their blood, sweat, and tears are what enriched the very ground we walk on. It’s a sensitive subject for whites and blacks alike.

HBS captured the uglier aspects of slavery as best as a white woman could during that time. Many of the characters and the events are based on the anecdotes of people that really existed. And even if you take it as purely a work of historical fiction, it definitely opens your eyes and your heart about that time period. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be treated so cruelly–with hardly any hope for a better future. And being sold to a new master and being torn away from my family FOREVER…. Forget it.

That being said, UTC isn’t the easiest book to read. Not only was it written in a much different style than we are used to, but good portions of the African American dialogue are in ebonics and very difficult to interpret at times. HBS also tended to yank readers out of the groove of things by calling attention to the fact that you’re reading a story. “And now if you the reader would be kind enough to follow me to a different place….” blah blah, that type of thing. Publishers these days would skin an author alive if they tried to pull that.

But on the whole, considering how large a book it is, it’s actually an interesting read. I didn’t dread it as I have with some other classics, and I can definitely say I learned a lot.

Oh, but don’t expect a happy ending…

3 cotton bales of 5

(Also, this book is now public domain. That means the copyright has run out and anyone can use it. Because of this you can find free versions for your Kindle, which is what I did.)


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Lisa See’s work is surprising fascinating. Previous to picking up her delightfully tragic novel Peony In Love, I never would’ve believed Ancient Imperial China could be so dang interesting. This confidence in See’s writing ability and historical accuracy drew me to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

The protagonist, Lily, is a lower-middle class second daughter to a quietly tense farming household. At a young age, a matchmaker realizes that Lily has great marriageable potential because of auspicious aspects of the girl’s signs. But the most unexpected thing of all–Lily discovers that she is to have a laotong (life-long sworn friend) with a little girl named Snow Flower. The excitement she feels upon hearing the news is nothing compared to the rich friendship that eventually develops over the course of a lifetime. But when Snow Flower’s future and status start going a much separate way from her own, how is Lily supposed to choose between propriety and deference to her in-laws and her much beloved friend?

I will say that Lisa See does a great job of painting a picture of what life was like (especially for women) in that ancient period. The way she describes textures and colors and scents really draws you into the story. However, I do with that she had explained the exact era in a bit more detail. (My guess would be the late-1800’s–it’s hard to say since the Chinese Empire lasted from 221 BC to 1912 AD).

Beautiful Moon was my favorite character, even though she had a very short role in the story. Lily seemed to strict and prim for Snow Flower to be friends with, and Snow Flower seemed so detached and strange to Lily. I never really felt an affection for Snow Flower, and it’s hard for me to swallow a culture where women had so little choice. 

I enjoyed reading SFATSF but not enough to read it again. It lacked the magic and myth of Peony in Love and while learning about the torturous foot-binding tradition was crazy–it wasn’t enough to carry a story about a half-hearted friendship. The friendship never seemed true to me, it just seemed like two lonely girls happy about finally getting some attention.

3 of 5 secret fans


Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington is an interesting work of contemporary fiction. The story centers around our protagonist, 15 year old Alice Bliss. Her normal teenage world is turned upside-down when her beloved father joins the army and is sent on tour in Iraq. The Bliss women, now left at home on their own, must struggle to find a way to fill the hole that Matt has left behind. Tensions rise between family members, especially when a knock at the door informs them that Matt is now MIA and his chances of being found alive are slim. When an 18 month deployment stretches into forever, how do you learn to cope with suffocating absence?

It’s strange to think that right now we are living within a piece of American history. The Iraq War. Much debated, much reviled, we are in the middle pages of a not-too-distant textbook. The reality of the situation is that Alice’s world is shared by many. Personally, I can rattle off a couple dozen friends who have enlisted in the military within the last few years. Rather than college, the Air Force or the Marines is now an acceptable after-high school career. We all know someone who is being missed. And that’s what struck me with Alice Bliss. 

I appreciated this book for what it was. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of how just “being” is difficult when a loved one is in harm’s way. The day to day routine, just “going on” becomes a struggle. It also demonstrated how one family member can be the glue that holds everyone together, as Matt was. Once he left, his wife and two daughters floated away from each other only to orbit around him and his memory. His absence was so central and profound to the story that it became a character of its own. It made my heart ache for his family members, just as it has ached for real friends of mine.

Alice Bliss is a great story, especially since it is such a slice out of military family life. I feel that oftentimes the troops are celebrated for their strength and courage, but it’s the people they have left behind who must possess a certain strength of character in order to keep going. When you love someone in the military, you are living in two worlds–your world and the (very dangerous and scary) world you have imagined your loved one in.

That takes a courage all of it’s own.

3.5 purple hearts of 5