Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

I received this book as a giveaway by William Morrow in exchange for an honest review.
The book left an ambiguous impression. On one hand, not many books nowadays tackle the subject of war with grace, patience, and poise. On the other hand, it was somewhat of a disappointing novel.
The plot line mostly moves forward with occasional flashback to the pre-war and early WWII Germany. The surviving wives of German conspirators against Hitler are grappling with their lives, survival, necessary sacrifices, and guilt.

Guilt should be and is the leading theme of the novel, but somehow the existential circumstances the characters faced did not move me. Believe me, I am not immune to the topic of war, senseless violence, and guilt, but Jessica Shattuck is not Dostoevsky.

I know – it is a hefty goal to strive to be, but there is one thing I see as a trend. American writers can do thrillers and suspense books, espionage and conspiracy novels very well ( it might be a part of literary tradition) , and, to be fair, Russian writers fail miserably at it, but when it comes to emotional anguish and self-devouring guilt, inner monologues and soul-searching, no one does it better that Russian writers.
It does not mean American writers should not try, though. A nice try …

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Fall of Giants by Follett

This massive (page-wise) book is the opening novel of the eponymous trilogy. With all the move and hassle of buying a new home, I did not physically read it, but I listened to the Audible audio book. Due to the impossibility of past cross-references, I was not able to page back and verify some information, but the book was easy to follow. This is the case when some drawbacks of the book eventually became its strengths in its audio version.

It is obvious that the book that is so massively popular would not be the high-brow, elegant, and elitist fiction, but it was still very enjoyable. Yes, the characters were often too straightforward and slightly predictable, but there were scores of them, and because of their easy-to-decode nature and theatricality of their features, they were easy to remember, too; it is especially important if you are listening to the audio book.

The plot lines were occasionally too predictable and slightly soap-operish (like in the case with numeral pregnancies), but it was also easy to remember, and it is highly important when there are several plot-lines that intertwine and crisscross the fabric of the text.

On the other hand, Follett allows his characters to be politically active even if I or maybe he does not share the same ideas and beliefs. I am not happy with Fitz’s opinion about the role of women, aristocracy, and democracy, but I still appreciate that Follett lets him be and does not try to change his opinion, neither is he trying to make him truly evil. Surprisingly, despite the slightly formulaic nature of his characters, all of them have redeeming features, and I do not hate any of them. Besides, closer to the end of the novel, even the most straightforward characters become more subtle and complex. Some might say that final chapters is not exactly the place in the novel when and where one develops his or characters, but it is only the first novel of his trilogy, so with the other two in mind, Follett is allowed to take his time to develop his characters and make them more literary complex.

Overall, I do not mind reading the other two books. It is not the special literary treat for the language and literature lovers, but it is likable, entertaining, relatively well researched, and delivers complex political ideas without boring its readers.

P.S. The description of the military episodes is one of the most important achievement of this novel – it is utterly believable, convincing, memorable, touching, realistic, gritty, and very disturbing as any description of war should be.

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Les Miserables by V. Hugo

A huge, humongous reading marathon has come to an end. There are hardly enough words and sentences to clearly delineate my impressions. It is the book that can be defined with virtually every literary adjective from the word bank. The book made me cry, made me feel, made me happy, made me euphoric, ecstatic, made me mad, and befuddled me on a number of occasions.

This mammoth book is a political, religious, and social stand, historical fiction, a compendium of lectures, Greek tragedy, Hugo’s commentaries, and an interesting story of rebirth and compassion, self-discovery, and love. Hugo is using a very unusual narrative voice. On one hand, it is a traditional third-person narrator whose story of Jean Valjean, Cosette, and Marius touches the hearts and minds of many readers. On the other hand, it is the voice of a political and historical commentator who often takes forays into the fields of philosophy, history, and even linguistics. It is also the voice of an editor who comments the intents and motives of his main characters. In general, the book is an eclectic and weird combination of a heart-breakingly beautiful story, implacable political and social opinion, and populism.

The spiritual debate is one of the strongest in the novel, and one can see how Hugo is torn between the two parental influences: a devote, nearly mystical Catholic mother and a pragmatic, atheistic father. Of course, he had to placate his reading audience, but one can feel quite unmistakably how behind the curtain of religion, Hugo in fact is relying on kindness and love as universal concepts and NOT religious ones exclusively. Religious values are turned into universal humanistic values, and maybe this is also a part of the long-standing clout of this novel.

The other greatest achievement of this novel is than despite the number of revolutionary battle scenes in the book, the main and most palpitating scenes take place in hearts of its main characters: moral emotional struggles of Jean Valjean and even Javert are on par with Dostoevsky’s passages.

On a side note, Hugo is a master of suspense: there are multiple scenes that are executed and written with the breathtaking precision that makes Hollywood writers envious and keeps readers on the edge of their reading seats. Hugo is also in total and perfect control of the main plotline with not a single character left forgotten, in oblivion, or returned out of nowhere.

As a personal discovery, I believe the novel is also a tragedy a la Grecque: a limited number of people can not escape Fate and meet each other again and again in new circumstances and sometimes under new names. Javert even has his own hamartia (a personal flaw) – Criminal Law is the only guidance book – that eventually, like in any Greek tragedy, leads to his demise, literally in his case.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the novel and Hugo’s ability to appeal to his readers’ hearts and minds even many years after his death. It equally appeals to history buffs, social reformists, thinkers, intellectual elitists, and romantics who enjoy good story-telling.

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The Black Bird by R.L. McCallum

Being mired in my chunky and long novels, I have nearly forgotten the pleasures of reading a novella, especially a novella so masterfully written. This novel was again my foray into the world of indie and self-published authors, and overall, I am happy with my choice.

The novella is a stylish compilation of recognizable moves in the horror genre and allusions to the very foundations of this genre. It is also a deftly written Victorian period piece with the language imitating the famous early ghost stories. The imitation goes beyond the level of wording and vocabulary, but rather successfully attempts to follow the syntax and even ideas and values of this epoch. Some fans of the splatterpunk might consider this a softie, a sub par performance, BUT I FOR ONE really enjoyed its deftly linguistic fabric of the text.

The author also masterfully used recognizable allusions (allusions to Poe, the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, and definitely the image of the raven). Ravens conventionally are used to create the unpleasant murky feeling of something sinister but hardly tangible. This raven gains even more power and turns not only into the harbinger of disaster but also the extension of something immeasurably darker.

Allusions to Jack the Ripper are key if you want to create this dark, Gothic world of Victorian England. The ever-used mystery of the serial killer is also given a new supernatural explanation in this novella. The Gothic setting of the novel is another commendable point. The aura of an old, ramshackle, dilapidated, haunting place perfectly recreates the chilling atmosphere of the Wuthering Heights.

The most important thing is that the horror, experienced by Mr. James, the protagonist, and a famous poet, could have a logical explanation of him being addicted to the laudanum with the subsequent hallucinations and gradual descent into madness. It could be explained, but who would settle for the banal explanation of hallucinations caused by this drug. It is indeed much more exciting to entertain a darker idea of the raven as the embodiment of evil, of a beautiful woman, who is THE killer and whose skin is as cold and cadaverous as of a corpse.

Dreams and nightmares in this novella are very visionary in their nature, but also very Victorianesque when they were interpreted as a certain affinity bond with the inexplicable part of our nature, our subconscious mind, and our dangerous potential to cross the line of normalcy and madness. I really enjoyed the Victorian interpretation of madness as a dangerous and a dark gift into which Mr. James tapped to create his poems with the eerie and otherworldly feeling.

Overall, a novella that deserves four stars for its stylish intertextual literary content and a really spooky and eerie atmosphere. A job very well done!

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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Gothic, Historical Fiction, Horror, Indie, Victorian

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

Speaks the Nightbird, Speaks Robert McCammon! The novel ‘Speaks the Nightbird’ celebrates McCammons’ return to the big publishing game after nearly a decade of silence when his contract with the previous publisher was terminated, and what a lovely celebration it it.
The novel that is classified as a historical mystery is actually a book that defies and expands the constraints of this genre. This is the third McCammon’s novel that I have read, and he is yet to disappoint me. This delightful novel for me reveals McCammon’s Southerness. I live in the South, and as an immigrant I do see many things I personally strongly dislike, but the South McCammon loves is the genteel South, the South of a true colonial style. Do not be confused – he does not show the South in the romanticized, biased way – slavery and bigotry, evangelical loud proselytizing and duplicity, humid unbearable climate with the swampy terrain, all these ingredients are there, but the narrative itself and the way people and places are described and shown conveys the unmistakable feeling of finesse and refined gentility of the old Colonial South.

The mystery per se is not a brilliant mind-boggling puzzle, and the suspect is clearly identified by the narrator quite early in the novel although his guilt and his role of a culprit are questioned throughout the novel. The quest to find the truth, on the other hand, reveals the deeper verity and other ugly discoveries. The seemingly ideal community eventually drops all the pretenses and turns into a nest of wasps. This image is only accentuated by the actual nest of wasps in one of the households with the most vitriolic and poisonous housewives literature has ever offered.

This plot-forming mystery eventually turns into a gruesome travesty, an orchestrated performance of malicious mind. And again, the troupe of actors underlines and spices up this idea of travesty, performance, duplicity, and double identities. If this is not enough for a doubting reader, the book that is constantly being read by our protagonist, Matthew Corbett, is about theatrical performances in England. The mystery of witchcraft turns into the mystery of murders, greed, and envy. It also challenges many of the characters to question their values and even question God. It also surprisingly forges the goodness in people in whom this goodness is present even if they dislike each other. I think namely this feeling of respect of other people, even disagreeable, gives this books this elusive feeling of gentility.

As any good book, it is not only an entertaining story, it is a story about painful losses (both present and past), redemption, forgiving love, and an unobtrusive social commentary. The passages about the slaves were among the most powerful ones in the book, and although these passages were not tremendously instrumental in the plot development, they are still very memorable.

The review would not be complete without the remarks about the narrator. I listen to the audio book, and sound-wise, it was a brilliant performance. Edoardo Bellerini manages to convey the inflections of many characters, both male and female; likewise, he relays the ambiance of multiple settings: the tavern, the official dinners, the jail, the untamed landscape, everything seems virtually tangible in this audio version.

What’s the conclusion – if you read the historical mystery for the sake of the mystery and the brilliance of human deduction, this book might disappoint you. If you look for a read about emotional maturity as a rite of passage for a young gentleman, about the journey of self-discovery, love, and loss, and revaluation of your personal stand, if you want to learn about the multicultural perspective during the early days of colonial life, if you enjoy patient and pleasant reads, this is the book for that occasion. I know one thing for sure – the next book in the series will be purchased as soon as possible

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Jack Dawkins by Charlton Daines

This is my first experience reading the self-published novel, and I believe it was a successful attempt. I sincerely and responsibly state that I enjoyed reading this novel. It was not a breathtaking read, neither was is a classy read when you enjoy and devour the literary dessert of words, phrases, and sentences, but not all books are created to be literary masterpieces. Some of them serve a laudable and pragmatic function to entertain its readers. This novel surely does.
The premise of the novel is the return and the new leash of life for one of the fringe but memorable Dickens characters, Jack Dawkins, also known as Artful Dodger.
Jack Dawkins tries to reestablish himself in the society and finds himself split between two societies: the underworld of London thieves, prostitutes, muggers, kidnappers, and other shadowy characters, and the world of the genteel and rich society, the upper crust. He even entertains the idea of being a gentleman thief. Eventually, he does have to make a choice, but it is upon the reader to decide how plausible his choice is.
The character of Jack Dawkins is a flawed character that is always torn between his natural impulses to be good and his desires to practice his superb skills. It might seem strange, but namely this duality is one of his most sympathetic features. The spontaneous combination of doing good things and being remorseful with his permanent desire to pick pockets is truly authentic.

I also believe that though the book is highly entertaining, it provides an interesting historical insight into the underworld and does convey a certain social message: the book reflects the societal structure of nineteenth-century London, the indulgent and decadent life of rich students, the dietary habits, means of transportation, and other facts that create a certain feeling of historicity.

On the other hand, there are things in this novel that prevented me from giving four stars. I refuse to believe that the life of one person could be so intensely built on serendipity: how he meets Oliver, Tom, and the policeman who eventually recognizes him, how other characters’ lives are interwoven, all this is highly questionable. For the situation to develop the way it developed in the book, too many things should come together, and they did, which, in my opinion, is a stretch.
Another weakness is the choice of words. The author makes a laudable effort and painstakingly diffuses the text with the professional argot of thieves, but he refuses to create a minuscule semblance to the Victorian discourse. Conversely, I have to admit that the author is definitely well-versed, but his choice of words, though elaborate, reflects his position as a modern man of letters. Again, some of those high-brow words and verbal moves did look sparklingly beautiful, hilarious, and even tongue-in-cheeky when they were used in the mundane context.
All in all, I spend a couple of enjoyable evenings in the company of this novel. If you want to know more about the dark underbelly of London in the 19th century and, surprisingly, about the ambrosial desserts, this is the book for you.

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