Cecelia Holland is one of a handful of masters of historic fiction. Her characters are true, more real than many "real" figures found in histories andCecelia Holland is one of a handful of masters of historic fiction. Her characters are true, more real than many "real" figures found in histories and biographies, as are the finely detailed and carefully researched past worlds she creates.
The Kings in Winter tells the story of a fictional Irish chief, Muirtagh, who lived in the time of the legendary Irish king Brian Boru.
Muirtagh's clan, then led by his father, was massacred before the story begins. They now live in the hills, away from the land that was once theirs. Muirtagh, who prefers the harp to killing, declines to scheme for revenge - a stance that ironically transforms the clans who took part in the massacre into murderers rather than the brave heroes avenging past wrongs, as they prefer to see themselves.
Muirtagh unsuccessfully maneuvers to shield his family from harm, survives a winter as an outlaw, and finally takes refuge with the high king's enemies - and the Danish invaders allied with them.
Muirtagh's outlaw winter was a favorite part of the story for me. "In the afternoon he reached the shore of huge lough and made a camp beside it. Sitting before his fire, he wished he had his harp; he wasn't sleepy, and it would be pleasant to play his harp. The wind came up over the lough, sharp and edged with cold. He should have chosen the summer to get outlawed in.
"Finally he got up and went after the mare, who was grazing along the shore. He hadn't tethered her, thinking she wouldn't go far from him, but when he came close to her she lifted her head and moved away. He followed her along the shore, but she wouldn't let him get near her, and eventually he gave up. She put her nose down to the grass and began to browse again.
"If she got away from him he was helpless. The thought of being left on foot in this country, of being seen and chased on foot, took the breath out of his lungs...."
The battle at the book's end is a classic, vividly describing both action and Muirtagh's interior take on it.
I finished it about 1:30 a.m. last night, couldn't put it down.
An aside - I don't understand another reviewer's complaint about the Irish names. It's a book based around 999 in Ireland. Given those circumstances, what names would be preferable? ...more
There are so many books and so little time that I rarely read a book twice. Eric Newby's A Short Walk is one of the very few exceptions. An eccentric,There are so many books and so little time that I rarely read a book twice. Eric Newby's A Short Walk is one of the very few exceptions. An eccentric, frighteningly intelligent, and irascible former editor recommended it to me twenty years ago, and it immediately became one of my favorite books. It's howlingly funny, an account of a trip to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, a place so different that it might as well have been on a different planet. Newby and his friend Hugh Carless plan to climb a 19,000-foot peak, the Mir Shamir. Neither are mountain climbers and Newby isn't even in very good physical shape. He's been standing around selling high couture women's clothing. So they begin with some practice climbs in Wales, and get a first glimpse into just how ill qualified they are for the undertaking. By the time they reach Tehran, Newby also understands that Carless believes that a traveler just needs to get used to contaminated water, build up a resistance. The two men are sick, therefore, for much of the trip. Newby expertly imparts a sense of impending doom while making you laugh, and if you didn't know he and Carless lived through the journey it wouldn't have been much fun. Indeed, it's an adventure they were lucky to have survived. In Turkey, they're accused of hitting an old man on the road. In Iran, Newby is already sick: "We drove on and on and all the time I felt worse. Finally we reached a town called Fariman. A whole gale of wind was blowing, tearing up the surface of the main street. Except for two policemen holding hands and a dog whose hind legs were paralysed, it was deserted." It gets worse: "The customs house was rocking in the wind, which roared about it so loud that conversation was difficult. "'Is it always like this?' I screamed in Hugh's ear. "'It's the Bad-i-Sad-o-bist, the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days.'... "We were in Afghanistan." The joy of Newby's writing is that he and Carless are the butt of most of the jokes—although he doesn't spare anyone. Of the local men who are to travel with them up the Panjshir River Valley to Mir Shamir, Newby writes, "They were crouching with Abdul Ghiyas over a wooden bowl containing curds and talking with great animation while they scraped the bottom of the bowl with great hunks of bread; occasionally they would interrupt their conversation to look at us with sinister emphasis." The two amateurs will climb with the help of a pamphlet they pull out now and then. Newby hopes to impress Carless with his knowledge of a local dialect by studying a 1901 booklet that has helpful phrases for the traveler. "Reading the 1744 sentences with their English equivalents, I began to form a disturbing impression of the waking life of the Bashgali Kafirs.... "Dum allangiti atsiti i sundi basnd bra. 'A gust of wind came and took away all my clothes' "'A lammergeier came down from the sky and took off my cock.'... "'Why do you kick my horse? I will kick you.'" Newby writes like a poet about the strange, harsh landscapes he encounters, but his fortes are humor and honesty. He encountered a culture that was exotic and often brutal. As a reader I often felt horrified in between laughs. Newby's encounter with an especially heinous man in Tehran left me feeling queasy, and of course there was always the issue of how women were treated, something Newby notes but doesn't dwell upon. I recommend it.
This is my review that appeared in the November 2011 issue of Historical Novel Review:
Americans sometimes forget that racism also exists in other counThis is my review that appeared in the November 2011 issue of Historical Novel Review:
Americans sometimes forget that racism also exists in other countries – even France, better known for welcoming African-American artists in the 1920s. In Paris Noire, author Francine Thomas Howard makes vivid the reach of racism in Paris at the end of World War II through a family’s competing love stories.
Marie-Therese Brillard, daughter of a white French father and an African-Caribbean mother, fled her native Martinique sixteen years earlier, after her white French husband broke her heart. She’s raised her two children, Christophe and Collette, in Paris with the understanding that when they marry it will be to someone of color. Neither sibling agrees with that plan. For Christophe, who turns his back on his childhood sweetheart and falls in love with the wife of a deadly French resistance fighter, his choice may cost him his life. The book’s description makes it sound as though Collette’s story is also woven through, but we never see her with her beloved; we simply know he’s white, that Collette is with him, and that Marie-Therese impotently disapproves.
The danger to Christophe is balanced with delicious fun as the upright and (in her own mind) elderly Marie-Therese tumbles into love with a handsome African-American officer – something Christophe can’t fathom. His mother? With a man? Marie-Therese is a unique heroine, an insecure, devout Catholic 50-year-old in need of a better bra. She is absolutely certain that whites can’t be trusted in matters of the heart and she doesn’t hesitate to lie to Christophe in order to save him. Paris Noire is a winning historical romance that feels true to the mores of its time. Its slow start gathers force for a powerful and poignant ending. ...more
I remember loving these books in high school - I read them about the same time as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I haven't revisited them (as I have via theI remember loving these books in high school - I read them about the same time as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I haven't revisited them (as I have via the movies for Lord of the Rings, and simply re-reading C.S. Lewis), but I remember them being in the same category of timeless classics....more
Take A Walk Across the Sun for what it is - a fast-paced thriller about a privileged lawyer who lands in Mumbai, India, and who gradually embraces hisTake A Walk Across the Sun for what it is - a fast-paced thriller about a privileged lawyer who lands in Mumbai, India, and who gradually embraces his work with CASE - the Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation, a group fighting the trafficking of human beings, especially children, for sex.
A Walk also tells the story of sisters Ahalya and Sita, 15 and 17, who, after a tsunami devastates their community, are kidnapped as they try to make their way to their convent school.
This plot point bugged me a bit. Because they're well born and educated, does that make them worth more? Why not make them dirt poor - as are most of the children in the sex trade in Asia. I saw some of these kids in the Philippines and in Cambodia, which has been trying to clean up its reputation as a child prostitution destination. In the Philippines, I interviewed people rescuing child prostitutes, and I interviewed many of the children themselves - as well as children who lived under a bridge. The low value placed on human life (sometimes called sexism, racism, class discrimination) may play a part in making it easier for child prostitution to flourish. Poverty and powerlessness alongside wealth and power are the real enabler, though, whether it's Sweden or India.
A Walk isn't literature, it's entertainment with a purpose, and the fact that it succeeds is notable. (One of the first rules of writing fiction is that you're not writing to make a moral or political point, you're writing to tell a story!) Addison, with this debut novel, both tells a story in A Walk and makes his point.
I'm a snob about good writing, which is why I hesitated between three and four stars. I gave Da Vinci Code three stars. A book can be wildly popular and truly a page-turner even with too many coincidences and characters who are less developed than some readers might hope for. Most readers, however, just want to get on with the story. This suspenseful tale (will the girls be saved?) is especially for them. Character development is not the main point here. Addison does craftsman's work in telling the story, making us care about the girls, and creating Mumbai and Paris - I've been on most of those boulevards, and I was happy to recognize the Porte Saint-Denis and the arcades that few tourists see.
Here's my review of this novel for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and histHere's my review of this novel for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and history.
German anti-fascists in Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s felt the weight of history on their shoulders; it was up to them to expose and stop the Nazis. When they failed, many managed to escape to England, where they desperately warned a deaf world about Hitler. The Gestapo, equally earnest, worked to stop them—by murder if need be.
Funder, author of the bestselling nonfiction Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, based this new book, her first novel, on real people and events, most notably Dora Fabian, a brave, beautiful, and charismatic feminist-socialist. Dora’s memory haunts both Ernst Toller (1893-1939, a German playwright, revolutionary, and poet), and Ruth Wesemann, Dora’s cousin, who became a real-life friend of the author. A fourth important character is Ruth’s husband, Hans Wesemann, a pundit who lampooned Hitler and his thuggish crew.
Its subject matter is both important and meaningful, dealing with injustice and decency, and also life’s unexpected demands for courage, which we may or may not live up to. It’s an ambitious novel that builds upon a compelling drama—but with a dry, documentarian sensibility. I sometimes returned to it out of duty. Part of that may be because of the distancing inherent in telling the story from the remove of Toller and Ruth’s viewpoints, years and decades after Dora’s death. Still, Funder’s writing is often insightful and the story is gripping. Here’s Toller, shell-shocked in a sanatorium among the physically maimed of World War I. “All is calm, apart from the Christ hanging at the end of the room, naked and dying,” he observes. “He looks familiar — like a relative? So far as I can tell, he and I are the only Jews here.” ...more
I was immediately captivated by the charming pastels that illustrate this book. They give the sense of a misty, breezy long-ago, a time when friends mI was immediately captivated by the charming pastels that illustrate this book. They give the sense of a misty, breezy long-ago, a time when friends met each other in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower for espresso, a less crowded time because the streets were mostly free of the infernal automobile.
Both story and artwork are quirky and intriguing, about the inventions of wristwatches and airplanes - a nice coming together for both kids and parents, the one seeming so mundane (even old-fashioned - who uses wristwatches? We've gone back to pocket watches, aka cell phones) and the other - airplanes - still amazing even to twenty-first century children.
So who did invent the airplane? Turns out it was an eccentric Brazilian living in Paris. This is a marvelous antidote to the American-centric story of flight that children learn in U.S. schools. A number of reviewers think it's mostly a boy's story. I disagree. A lot of girls like flying as well, and even for those who don't, the illustrations of hairdos and long dresses will entertain.
Thanks to firstreads for my copy. I was excited to win a children's book, and plan to share it with some young readers in my family when they visit later this summer....more
Yes - this is one of those books that will always be loved. I can't remember for certain if I remember it from my childhood, but I certainly rememberYes - this is one of those books that will always be loved. I can't remember for certain if I remember it from my childhood, but I certainly remember it from my children's childhood. It's like Sleeping Beauty - timeless....more
Much of what is categorized as "literary" is actually pretentious and annoying. Krys Lee's stories are neither. They were outside my comfort zone, butMuch of what is categorized as "literary" is actually pretentious and annoying. Krys Lee's stories are neither. They were outside my comfort zone, but told with such straight-forwardness and luminosity that the book, once opened, was hard to put down. The title story in particular came back to my thoughts again and again - two boys, abandoned by their mother, attempting to flee famine in North Korea to China. I won this book through the firstreads program, and it's not the admittedly escapist fiction I prefer - fiction with insight, grace, and historical realism; yet fiction firmly in the Hollywood tradition of happy endings. Lee's stories are slices of life so real that a reader longs to drop into the story and put things right. Just as a slice of your life doesn't have an ending - happy or unhappy - so Lee's characters don't have happy or unhappy endings. They rather dissolve into the human condition, full of sin and longing and either focusing on survival or, when survival isn't at stake, misdirecting their energy towards the ephemeral, feeling the wrong feeling and thus saying the wrong thing. There is a magical kind of sorrow here, and also surreal humor, all of it adding up to a glimpse of the drifting house that is the life of the expatriate, or the life at home when home has fallen apart. Worthwhile reading....more
Between the easy-to-read prose, the clever plot, and the intriguing characters, One Blood feels like a solid new offering in a long line-up of mysteriBetween the easy-to-read prose, the clever plot, and the intriguing characters, One Blood feels like a solid new offering in a long line-up of mysteries featuring Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella. I was surprised to see it's only the second.
Kella is on the Solomon Islands Police Force in 1960. He's caught between whitey's culture and his own island culture, both a cop and an aofia, that is a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper. While it's true that an exotic location and a cop or detective caught between two cultures is a well-worn set-up in the mystery genre, it's also true that it's often used because it can work really well. Kent makes it work, especially with the addition of the feisty Sister Conchita into the mix. Sister Conchita is the new leader of a mission that's become inward rather than outward looking, and she's got to shake up three elderly nuns who would prefer things stay the same.
Sergeant Kella is investigating sabotage at a logging camp, while Sister Conchita wants to know the truth about the death of an American who died suspiciously at an open house at the mission. He died soon after reaching out to Sister Conchita, and she knows she should have slowed down long enough to talk with him. The two cases are connected, of course. The fact that these were the islands where President John F. Kennedy's PT boat sank, leaving the future president and his crew to hide in the jungle from the Japanese, also plays a role in the story.
Another great book through the Goodreads firstreads program!...more