In her historical fiction debut, “Portrait of an Unknown Woman,” Vanora Bennett has brought a crucial slice of English history to life with compelling...moreIn her historical fiction debut, “Portrait of an Unknown Woman,” Vanora Bennett has brought a crucial slice of English history to life with compelling characterizations and a keen eye for period detail. Based on the rise and fall of humanist author and statesman Sir Thomas More during the English Reformation and the German artist, Hans Holbein, who created a painting of More’s family during that time, “Portrait” is a work rendered in stunning clarity and often breathtaking prose.
Although some readers may find the idea of Thomas More torturing anyone in the name of God quite bizarrely out of sync with his character as they understand it, Bennett’s characterizations all have the ring of authenticity within the framework of her novel. She has made Meg Giggs (Thomas More’s ward) a strong and thoughtful character and has believably placed her centrally in the vortex of the political and religious convergence of Reformation England. By doing so, Bennett is able to present the details of that turbulent era through Meg’s intelligent and sympathetic eyes.
The actual plot points move rather slowly during the book’s first half but the reader is far too carried away by the novel’s intriguing, shadowy forebodings and compelling characterizations to actually notice this. When the plot does quicken its pace, Bennett reveals her genius – evident throughout her entire book – for seamlessly interweaving fiction with fact: “All through the spring and summer we lived apart from reality in our own joy. We paid no attention the day the poor devout queen went on her knees in the divorce court and swore, in her Spanish-accented voice, that she had come to the king’s bed a virgin all those years before, or to the stories of the look of disgust on the king’s face as he publicly pushed her away.”
In the current climate of increasingly strident ideologies, Bennet’s remarkably balanced and sympathetic portrayal of the novel’s central religious dispute is nothing short of miraculous. For instance, a Protestant character describes his new devotion to God in the following way: “there are people – like me – who believe that being a Christian means they’re allowed to have a simple conversation with God without having to pay a priest for the privilege. People who believe that . . . all you have to do is truly believe and your sins will be forgiven. . . “
But Thomas More waxes no less lyrical regarding the beauties of Catholic worship when he describes it as “the sacred continuum that joins everyone alive now with every Christian from St. Augustine onward who has believed what we believe and worshiped as we worship. Take that away . . . lose the beauty of Latin, the common language that unifies all believers . . . and you’re left with nothing but the ranting and babbling of lunatics.”.
There are a few sexy scenes/situations in the book which seem extremely out of place considering the high moral principles espoused by the Thomas Moore family, but I suppose these additions are a nod to 21st century readers hungry for a bit of bodice-ripping in all their historical fiction. These scenes don't overwhelm the narrative but they do seem quite out of place.
Although the enjoyment of this book is greatly enhanced by a general understanding of Plantagenet/Tudor history, it is sure to please anyone with the slightest interest in beautiful writing and realistic characterizations set within a historical framework. (less)
"Speak Right On" is a fictionalized biography of Dred Scott, the African-American slave at the center of the hotly debated antebellum Supreme Court deci...more"Speak Right On" is a fictionalized biography of Dred Scott, the African-American slave at the center of the hotly debated antebellum Supreme Court decision that will forever bear his name. Scott was a slave who, because he had lived in the free North with his Southern master for a time, decided later to sue for his freedom on that basis. His case wound its way through the courts for ten years, eventually landing in the Supreme Court where the justices (most of them slave holders) ruled that Scott couldn't sue for anything since only citizens could bring lawsuits and slaves were not citizens. The case, which was ruled on in 1857, enraged Abolitionists and fanned the fires of the Civil War.
Armed with a few biographical facts but plenty of Southern (and African) history, Neighbour has sought to flesh out a portrait of the man behind the ruling and in the process has created a powerfully moving portrayal of the psychology of slavery.
Because he was too small to be a field hand and because his grandmother was the primary household slave on the plantation where he spent his boyhood years, Scott had a comparatively comfortable life. Due to the nature of work he was involved with as an adult (a doctor's assistant), his life was often actually quite fulfilling.
But the immorality of slavery wasn't about the quality of life, it was about the basic human craving for freedom and it is this point that Neighbour brilliantly illustrates again and again - in often breathtakingly beautiful prose. For instance, after his first slavery-related crisis, Neighbour gives Dred these thoughts: as he realizes the cold hard fact of his slave status: "My life didn't matter. My acts didn't matter. And when that don't matter, neither does tomorrow. I stopped dreaming and scheming; stopped feeling the possibilities. You could say I come to know I was a slave."
"Speak Right On" is a powerful, disturbing, and ultimately uplifting page-turner.
The Weight of Smoke is the first in a trilogy of novels by George Robert Minkoff which fictionalize Captain John Smith’s action-packed and (possibly)...moreThe Weight of Smoke is the first in a trilogy of novels by George Robert Minkoff which fictionalize Captain John Smith’s action-packed and (possibly) self-aggrandizing memoir of life on the high seas – and practically everywhere else. “Weight of Smoke” deals primarily with Smith’s experiences at the founding of Jamestown, although the narrative contains many flashbacks which dip back into his adventurous past, including European wars, private duels and enslavement.
What saved Jamestown from extinction, of course, was the discovery that the land was good for growing tobacco and Minkoff delineates very clearly the mounting English cravings for “the leaf.” Although the benefits of smoking were being hotly debated back in England, everyone was doing it and the inclusion of this Old World dispute makes the first part of the novel historically very interesting.
What readers crave most in a tale of Jamestown, however, is much more than a history of tobacco in the New World: they want some enlightenment on the supposed relationship between Pocahontas and Smith and in this respect even Minkoff’s description of Smith’s initial encounter with the Powhatan’s favorite child doesn’t disappoint: “She was standing alone, apart, her firm breasts bare, her long hair shining darkly as nights in collision, her eyes a blackness beyond depth, innocent and regal in her nakedness . . . Our eyes met. She didn’t glance aside. My lips moved. I forgot Newport and Powhatan involved in their gestures of state . . . She still stood, calling me, pulling me away from my moment of history, from my thoughts of great enterprise.”
Minkoff’s writing is often downright strange, as seen in the following passage where Smith describes his birth, current situation and destiny all in one oddly written paragraph: “Unlike you, I was betrothed to air. My shrew was circumstance, hollow was my birth. My strides in pigmy boots. What cause is mine? . . . I am the turmoil. All kingdoms are not suffice. I am larger than the air.” Did anyone – at any point in history – speak the English language in this bizarre manner? I seriously doubt it.
But if Minkoff’s overreaching creates the occasional overblown paragraph, he is also quite capable of writing prose of absolute beauty: “The landscape’s blue stained with golden shadows of the sun” and stunning insight: “In France again after three years, I heard of the death of Elizabeth two years before, in 1602. Do all our lives come to this, a spot of gossip on a Paris street?”
The writing style of The Weight of Smoke is much too esoteric make it a readable primer on Jamestown history but for those with a previous interest in all things John Smith, Minkoff’s novel definitely has its moments.
This splended book took a while for me to get into because I couldn't relate to Andi, its deeply troubled teen protagonist, and I'm not sure I would h...moreThis splended book took a while for me to get into because I couldn't relate to Andi, its deeply troubled teen protagonist, and I'm not sure I would have continued had not my own teenaged daughter insisted that I do so. But once Andi discovers the Revolutionary-era diary of a teenaged girl (who was the young dauphin's companion), the story really gets moving and never loses its page-turning power.
Donnelly has done her homework and makes the French Revolution come alive.(less)
This is an interesting attempt to bring the watershed (but little-known) Black Hawk War to life through the eyes of a fictional young settler named Se...moreThis is an interesting attempt to bring the watershed (but little-known) Black Hawk War to life through the eyes of a fictional young settler named Sean. The war is a backdrop to the domestic tension between Sean's father -- a "kill them Injuns" settler -- and his step-mother, a staunch pacifist. The author covers all the major events of the conflict, mostly through hearsay since Sean is too young to take an active role in the war.
This book would be a helpful addition to middle school studies on Midwestern history.(less)
This Time Tomorrow is historical fiction involving two brothers and a girl they both love set in the midst of the British experience of the First Worl...moreThis Time Tomorrow is historical fiction involving two brothers and a girl they both love set in the midst of the British experience of the First World War and its aftermath.
Colley, founder of the History-in-an-Hour Harper Collins series, is able to keep the reader interested in his characters as we follow them through their various war-related experiences. The descriptions of trench warfare are particularly heart-stopping.
There was one scene that is told via flashback during an interview set in 1988 that at first didn't seem to make sense to me: why have this peripheral "future" character suddenly describe the book's next major scene? Why not leave it on the timeline?
But then I realized that it made perfect sense to show that the horrific event in which this character was forced to take part continued to haunt him well into his 90's. And after reading this section I almost wished there had been more scenes like this one that switched back and forth between timelines -- it was extremely effective.
Every once in a while I thought Colley was setting up his characters along conventional lines but then they would do something completely surprising; they are very real people.
The difference between non-fiction and good historical fiction is this: non-fiction presents the facts while historical fiction brings the reader into the room, so to speak. Colley manages to do both: the historical setting is perfectly accurate and the reader sees it up close. If you want to learn about the Great War, go ahead and read Colley's World War One in an Hour (or for specific British issues, Hochschild's To End All Wars). But if you are up for a cinematic view of British soldiers on the Western Front and the devastating issues they faced in the trenches and out, read This Time Tomorrow.