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Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

I received this book as an Early Reviewer on LibraryThing and started it soon after I had come down from the hype of the previous book I had finished. Perhaps it was because of that proximity to my previous read, but what a come down it was. Although I fought my way to the end of this book, it was like trying to swim in treacle for much of it and I found myself wondering whether I could “cheat” and say I finished when I actually put it down halfway. I didn’t cheat – I did finish it, but it was a tough book to get through and I wasn’t sure that I felt it was worth it.

To be fair, The Collector of Worlds is a translation, which can make the writing difficult. The author had chosen the story of the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, as his subject. Burton had spent his life travelling India, Africa and the Middle East, adopting languages, cultures and religions as he went. He seems to be constantly searching for the new and the different – a trait I admire. However, unfortunately the book turned Burton into a detached character drowning in a sea of extraneous words and excruciating (and not particularly necessary) descriptions and monologues. The book is divided into three parts – the first covers Burton’s early journey to India and his adoption of Islam. It is narrated (in part) by his ex-servant in a manner which I found somewhat contrived. The second describes Burton’s trip to Mecca, explained in part by a number of Turkish officials who were exploring his motives after the fact. The final story finds Burton in Africa, searching for the source of the Nile, and partially narrated by one of his guides.

This tripartite division does little for the coherence of this historical novel. In fact, the switch between each part is jarring. I found the middle part the most difficult to get through – the paragraphs were so dense at times, I found myself skim reading over pages in order to try and pick up the thread of the story again. The disappointing part was that those pages I skimmed were necessary, it seemed, only to demonstrate the author’s erudition. His erudition may be admirable, but as a reader it bored me to tears. This book could have done with a good editor who could have reduced it down significantly from the 450+ pages it currently stands at. Perhaps then the experience of reading it might have been a little more pleasant.

The ending was really odd. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say Burton eventually dies in his old age, but even that was drawn out to an unecessary degree – not Burton’s passing, but the ‘crisis’ of the priest of presided over his death. By that stage, I was desperate to get the book finished and move onto something else. It was the nail in its coffin so to speak.

Were there any redeeming features? I think bringing the story to life in novel form is a good tactic – I know when I first heard the name I could only think of the actor. I also can’t fault the author’s research on the subject and the surrounding context, but rather than telling me everything, tell me enough and keep the story readable.

Rating: 2/10
ISBN:
Year:
2008
Date Finished: 12 June 2008
Pages:
456
Challenges: 4/8 of The Pub Challenge

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I am writing this review as one stop on Tristi Pinkston’s virtual book tour. I was asked to take part and Tristi kindly sent me a copy of the book to read which, as you all know by my voracious reading habits, wasn’t a difficult job to accept. Before I review the book, there is one disclosure I feel I should make. My religious beliefs differ greatly from those portrayed by Tristi in this historical story of her family. Personally, I am an atheist and I am also against organised religion – which meant I had to approach this book differently from many other reviewers. Being aware of my views I tried to step back from emotion as I read it and view it as a fascinating historical document.

Theme and history

Season of Sacrifice tells the story of Ben Perkins, a Welsh Mormon who immigrated to Utah in the mid nineteenth century to join many others who also subscribed to the same religion in building a new life. That life was built on risk and danger as they travelled to places previously unsettled by white people in the American landscape and tried to make a life for themselves. The story follows not only the physical hardships of Ben, his beloved wife Mary Ann and his family, but also the emotional difficulties that were faced in the name of their faith – specifically the hurt which arose from his decision to take Mary Ann’s sister Sarah as his second wife. Tristi is descended from Ben and Sarah, and therefore approaches the story in a considerate way, while never avoiding the reality of what the two sisters must have felt.

The theme is one of faith in the face of unavoidable human emotion and hardship. The characters’ faith is unswerving, but the aspect I found interesting was that even faith can’t stop you feeling. So often, historical books shy away from touching on the emotional aspect of people’s lives because emotions were rarely documented in historical records. This book has a historical backdrop, but reads like a fictional novel, with all expressions of feeling given pride of place.

The theme of faith and pioneering permeate the entire story. For me, it was eye-opening to see how much a religion drove people’s lives and choices, even if those choices brought danger or destruction to life or feelings. But irrespective, the choices shaped the country and echo through to this day.

Structure and Style

Tristi wrote this novel over a very short period of time, and makes it very clear which aspects are based in fact and which have been subject to fictional licence. I liked the fact that she took the time to provide this information, as it made it easy to explore those aspects of actual history which caught my attention. It is very easy to read, making good use of dialogue to maintain the pace. Tristi’s style is not complex – she is there to tell a story and she does that well. I did pick up a couple of typographical errors (which I always seem to spot, no matter which books I read!) so perhaps it could have been proofread a little more carefully, but nevertheless it wasn’t a difficult book to finish.

Thoughts

Of course, it is always difficult to take oneself and one’s own beliefs out of the reading experience. This is the reason why I might love one book while the person next to me hates it. It is what makes us all different. One of the things I do subscribe to is learning and understanding, and I am always happy to read books which portray a different view to my own. I think everyone should do it – perhaps if they did there would be more tolerance and views which were based on education and understanding rather than views blindly accepted without question.

Tristi Pinkston has crafted a story which has allowed me, as a reader, to do that. She did not come across as preachy, nor did she assume that everyone who read her book would end it feeling warm and comfortable. She did not write just for those who follow a particular creed – rather, she wrote a universally accessible tale, exposed a period of history which those of us outside of the Mormon religion would never have known about, and given a human face to some of the players within that drama.

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Introducing Phryne Fisher – intelligent, beautiful, wealthy and seductive, with more than her fair share of wit and sass, and a desire to find something more distracting to occupy herself than flying planes, driving fast cars or listening to boring society talk. In the first of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, our heroine takes herself to Melbourne. It is the late 1920s, and within days she is caught up with discovering who is running a cocaine racket, who is butchering young women by delivering amateur abortions, and who are the most interesting people in Melbourne society. This all interspersed with some delicious sex with a Russian ballet dancer and some fashionable clothes shopping, it is impossible not to love Phryne by the end of this book.

Kerry Greenwood has created a heroine-extraordinare. This is the first of more than 30 books and I can see why the character has persisted. She is just wonderful. Despite her wealth, she never forgets her working class roots. She takes pity on scorned ladies maids and roughened taxi drivers and doesn’t shirk about spending money with outrageous ease. Her intelligence gets her out of several rather dangerous situations and the end of the book sees her deciding that perhaps being a lady investigator might be an amusing diversion after all. Accompanied by her new ladies maid, I can see that this is the start of a lot of fun. My only sadness is that the Phryne Fisher novels, although available in the UK, appear to be a little more difficult to come by. I will be getting them sent over in parcels along with Tim Tams and Violet Crumbles.

My only criticism about this book was that it appears the first couple of chapters, introducing Phryne and having her embark on her journey to Melbourne were edited within an inch of their lives. I suspect Greenwood had embellished these chapters a lot more than the final draft, but because they were almost incidental to the story, were cut. Because of that, I did struggle through the first 15 or 20 pages because the writing was shallow, but I persisted because these books had been recommended to me. I am glad I did. As the story developed, the writing improved by the page and I was sad to say goodbye to Phryne at the end. Fortunately, this is certainly not the end. I am now out on the hunt for book 2.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 1-74114-566-X
Published: Allen & Unwin
Year: 2005 (first published in 1989)
Date finished: 19 December 2007

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The narrator of this story is Death. He (or she) thinks the fact that humans represent him with a scythe is amusing, he notices colours to keep him sane while he works, and he only wears a black cloak when it is cold. And it is Death who is charged with the responsibility of telling the story of Liesel Meminger, who arrives kicking and screaming at the house of the Hubermanns’ and learns to become a book thief.

After our narrator has introduced himself, he begins the story. It is 1939 and Death is soon to be very busy in Europe. Liesel is sent to live with her new foster parents due to a mysterious word – Kommunist – which had clearly incensed the Nazi government. She is 10 years old and over the next four years she experiences love, joy, an accordion, a Papa with storm grey eyes and a Mama who swears a lot, a hidden Jew, a lemon haired friend, and the joy of words and books.

Death chooses not to invite any surprises in the story. He says surprises bore him – he would rather we know what happens to Liesel early on, and then focus on how she gets there. This is no way detracts from the story – the tragedy at the end is not dampened in any way, and you feel the loss and agony of the girl, whose life is torn apart by a war in which none of her neighbours wanted any part. She had written her story down – and it was this which not only had saved her, but which Death had found and kept. It was because of this that the story was being told.

The book is written in a deceptively simple and beautiful manner. The narrator is entertaining, almost human, yet displays confusion and sadness at the folly of real human nature. Liesel herself shows strength and courage no matter what she experiences. And the backdrop of Nazism, anti-Semitism and life threatening risk for the sake of human compassion turns this into a story which can’t be read only once. The book is as much about words as it is about human spirit – and shows how words can not only heal but destroy and kill as well.

We are left to decide how the future between the time the story itself ends and the time that Liesel finally meets Death pans out. I wrote that part in my own head as the author chooses not to. But he doesn’t need to. The picture he has painted is simply stunning. The words he uses himself are artistic and expressive. A masterpiece of fiction which I will most definitely be reading again.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 0-330-36426-X
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Year: 2005
Date finished: 18 December 2007

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“To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor…”

And thus opens a simply marvellous murder mystery set in late nineteenth century London, and the introduction of Lady Julia Grey, a feisty, witty and intelligent woman with a sometimes dangerous curiosity and an unconventional family.

Lady Julia is the kind of woman which was rare during the period. Brought up in a liberal, open-minded but aristocratic family, Julia had spent much of her life trying to fight the unorthodox reputation of the family, and simply be ‘normal’. However, the death of her husband, Edward, and the arrival of Nicholas Brisbane into her life soon shatters any hope she may have of being normal, and as the story develops, her March family heritage begins to come out. And for that, you can’t help but love her.

When Brisbane suggests that Edward’s death was not of natural causes, Lady Julia is soon swept up in solving the mystery. She defies danger (generally acknowledging, in hindsight, her own stupidity), but doggedly pursues the truth, whilst clearly falling strangely for the dark, brooding Brisbane. Written in the first person, Julia’s witty observations, lucid thought processes and sharp intelligence drives her forward in her investigations until she finally figures out ‘whodunnit’ and finds herself in mortal danger.

The characterisation of this book is magnificent. Whether it be the portrait of her sister, Portia who has succumbed to Sapphic pleasures, her brother Valerius who finds himself in possession of a vocal Tower raven thanks to a lucky hand at cards or Julia’s liberal, forward thinking father who is quite happy to suggest that Julia take Brisbane as a lover, each character has been crafted with detail and care. The storyline is believable and the author has taken a great deal of care with the period, resulting in a fantastic story and a new favourite heroine.

Silent in the Grave is definitely worth the read. Although, frustratingly (albeit cleverly), Raybourn leaves the end hanging, so you know that you haven’t heard the last from the feisty Lady Julia Grey and the mysterious Nicholas Brisbane. I can’t wait for the next one.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 978-1-741-16518-0
Publisher: Mira Books
Year: 2007
Date Finished:
13 December 2007

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In some ways, it is difficult to write a review of this book. It was so well written, so graphic, so poignant and so descriptive, but ended so poorly, I almost wish I had put it down 15 pages before the end and left it at that. I am not sure what it is with Sebastian Faulks. I felt the same disappointment when I read Charlotte Grey – for some reason his endings are the weakest part of his novels, and sadly, that is the part you are left with which clouds the rest of the book.

Nevertheless, Birdsong was a magnificent work. Faulks’ transports the reader to the battlefields of World War I with such clarity that several times I found myself near tears. Everyone knows that the Great War was a senseless waste of life. Anyone who has studied the period is aware of the ineptitude of the Generals, and the apparent carelessness with the lives of an entire generation of young men, but reading about it in the context of real, albeit fictional, characters brings the horror home in a way I had never experienced before. I wondered at the resilience of the human spirit and was amazed that the men who had gone through it and survived somehow managed to return home and continue with their life. How they did it, I don’t know.

The book is set in two different time periods. The main story revolves around Stephen Wraysford – a young, French speaking English man who had come of age in 1910 after a passionate affair with an older, married woman, and then finds himself in the midst of the war several years later. The book paints a believable picture of him, both his strengths and his weaknesses, and as the story progresses, you can help but hope that he will eventually find peace in amongst the turmoil he has gone through.

The second period, and, in my opinion the weaker storyline, is the late 1970s. A woman decides to search for information about her grandparents, and her quest leads her back to Wraysford and the Great War. Sadly, this period wasn’t developed with the grace and skill of the war, and therefore the characters were shallow and the plot didn’t ring true. I wonder whether Faulks could have told the story just as effectively leaving this part out. Perhaps he might then have avoided the disappointing ending.

The strength of this book lies in the descriptions of the deprivations and battles. There were some very graphic sex scenes as well in the first part of the book which were quite surprising, but still set the tone well. Faulks’ historical character were all very good, and the story he wove around them was clear. And, like with Charlotte Grey, he is not afraid to provide an unexpected solution rather than the ‘feel good’ one that many books provide. For that, I applaud him. It isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

I would recommend this book as an eye-opening story of the Great War. That alone makes it well worth reading the entire book. If you approach it expecting to be moved and stunned by the story, rather than expecting to be impressed by the end, you will thoroughly enjoy it.

Rating: 7/10
ISBN: 0-09-938791-3
Publisher: Vintage
Year: 1994
Date Finished: 9 December 2007

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