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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

I, Claudius

In Book Reviews on March 23, 2014 at 6:00 am
Arthur Baker 1934

Arthur Baker 1934

Nutshell blurb: Claudius is the grand-nephew of the emperor Augustus. He walks with a limp, stutters and is considered to be feeble-minded. He fancies himself a historian and takes it upon himself to record the events of the imperial family in all of its blood-curdling splendour.

Can I just say that this is one of the densest books I’ve ever read? Ye gods, it took me over a month to read it. I know that it’s not a race and that I don’t have to read every book within 3 days of starting it, but I like to feel that I’m getting somewhere when I’m reading. I read this book on my commute and found that after 40 minutes on the tube, I had only gotten through 10 pages.

Yeesh.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it but it really messed up my progress on the massive backlog of books I have to read.

Anyway, on to the book.

I actually watched this series years ago at uni and loved it. At the time I didn’t even realise that it was based on a novel. So I was pretty excited to find out that there was a book.

The thing that I liked about this novel was that it felt as though it was actually narrated by Claudius. It felt like a real account of his life. I think that is indicative of great story-telling when you forget that you’re reading a novel and forget that it’s fiction.

Claudius is a very likable fellow. I really admired him for being so adaptable and for surviving when people were murdered left and right. He did what he had to do to ensure his survival. Namely, he acted like a half-wit and stayed out of everyone’s way when possible.

The thing that I didn’t like about it was that Claudius had a tendency to waffle on or go on long-winded tangents about excruciating topics like military tactics or a detailed account of what’s happening with the economy. I was loathe to skip these parts though, in case they contained important information about the characters. Of which there were many.

It was oh-so difficult to keep track of who was related to whom in this story. Luckily, there was a handy-dandy family tree at the back of the book which I frequently consulted.

Overall, I really did like this book. I’m just ready to read something that’s a bit less dense now.

Also, I really want to watch the series over again.

Hannibal

In Book Reviews on January 12, 2014 at 6:00 am
Canongate Books Ltd 1995

Canongate Books Ltd 1995

Nutshell blurb: This is the story of Hannibal’s life from his childhood to his death featuring his all-consuming hatred of Rome.

I don’t know much about Hannibal so this was a pretty interesting read. I actually love reading historical novels about historical figures I know nothing about because it inspires me to want to read some non-fiction about them. I much prefer to read the fiction before the non-fiction otherwise I’ll sit there and think “that’s not really what happened”.

Be advised, if you intend to read this, that you shouldn’t do so if things aren’t going well in your life or if you’re taking anti-depressants as this book is brutal.

The thing I found most interesting is that it’s told in first-person and feels like a journal kept by Hannibal. He’s telling us about his life. We get really close to him and we’re in his head. He’s a very sympathetic character. However, he tells us of all of these horrible things he’s done or ordered to be done and it’s difficult to read sometimes. I really wanted to not like him but I couldn’t help it. So serious points to Mr. Leckie for making a cold-blooded barbarian likable.

To illustrate my point (SPOILER ALERT!!!), Hannibal couldn’t understand some of the main faults of human nature such as the need to get drunk or to have a lot of women or to overindulge in food. He thought that these things dulled the mind and made a person weak. He loved his wife and live monogamously with her (according to the story. Not sure about real life) and included her in his plans for battle. She actively helped him in the camp. She tended to his soldiers’ wounds and helped with cooking the meals. She traveled with him whilst being hugely pregnant on his trek through the alps to invade Rome. Their relationship was very loving and sweet.

Yet, the other side of him was dark and brutal. At one point, he lined up some Roman women who were pregnant and had their babies cut out in retribution for a heinous act that some Roman soldiers committed. He wanted to take down Rome and lost everything he had trying to do so.

A LOT of innocents were slaughtered in this book. Actually, a lot of people were slaughtered regardless of who they were. We never get really close to them as Hannibal narrates this story in a very detached way. It makes it slightly more bearable but it was still difficult to read in some places.

It didn’t make me want to put it down, however, which is usually what happens if a book gets a bit too much for me. The characters were really interesting and it was a compelling read. I enjoyed it, but I probably won’t pick up other books by this author.

Labyrinth

In Book Reviews on January 1, 2014 at 6:00 am
Orion 2005

Orion 2005

Happy New Year to you! the holidays are almost officially over and it’s back to work for me tomorrow. It’s been a nice, relaxing break and I’m ready for 2014. I’m also ready to get back to blogging regularly.

I thought I’d start the new year with a post about a book that totally blew my socks off.

Nutshell blurb: This is the story of two women who live in two different time periods. They are connected by three books and a mysterious symbol.

Frankly, I don’t want to talk too much about the story. There’s a mystery involved and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Instead, I’ll tell you how it made me feel.

I’ve picked up quite a few historical books lately and as I’ve been reading them (or putting them down, as the case may be) I’ve become aware of two distinct styles of writing in them. I haven’t read enough to make any kind of scientific observations so bear in mind that these are merely my own observations.

Labyrinth is the type that I love. Rich descriptions of lush settings. Every word serves to paint a gorgeous picture of the world and the characters within. The words are carefully chosen and it almost seems like an epic poem. It reminds me of how I felt when I read the Iliad or the Odyssey. I felt as though I was reading a grand and sweeping legend yet at the same time I felt really close to the characters.

It’s kind of funny because I almost put this book down after reading a few pages. The prologue is written in the present tense and I can’t emphasise how much that winds me up. However, something happened within that prologue that caught my attention and I was hooked. Thank goodness I persevered! I was pleased to find that the rest of the book (except for the epilogue) was written in the past-tense. It’s very rare that I’ll keep reading a book that’s in the present tense. It’s completely off-putting.

Just. No.

The other type of historical fiction that I’ve been reading (and putting down) is the ultra-realistic type. It’s an interesting discovery to make as it gives me a bit more scope for my own writing. It’s good to read other people’s writing and analyse all of the things that I like about it but equally, it’s helpful for me to realise what it is that I don’t like.

These other types of historical fiction are gritty and raw. They are very much concerned with realism and accuracy. It seems as though they are trying to paint the world as it really was. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s definitely a matter of preference.

I’ve grown to realise that I don’t actually care about realism in fiction. If I want realism, I’ll read non-fiction. I actually prefer it when an author runs with his or her poetic licence.

I find that realistic historical fiction (and now the I’m thinking about it, any kind of fiction) is far more brutal than I care for. I don’t mean brutal in terms of violence. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m not at all squeamish. I mean brutal in the sense that everything is laid out dispassionately for the reader to absorb. Murder, rape, pillaging, slavery, torture. It’s all there and it’s told in such a way that it leaves very little to the imagination.

The latest book to hit my ‘did-not-finish’ shelf took place in Ancient Greece and there was a scene where some men and a boy were traveling in a boat. As some marauders approached in a different boat, the little boy kissed his dad and his uncles, smiled, jumped overboard and drowned. It was obviously a prearrangement that they had so that the boy wouldn’t be captured and have bad things happen to him. The boy is a throw-away character (he’s not even named) but he still haunts me even though I put the book down days ago. He’s just one of many throw-away characters that horrible things happen to and I only made it to page 42!

I think that the author was trying to show us what life was realistically like back in those days, but it didn’t work for me. The story lacked grace and poetry. Realism doesn’t really work for me. I want things to feel authentic but that doesn’t mean that they have to be authentic.

I’m not criticising these realistic types of books. They just aren’t for me. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not. It totally does in my head.

Ms. Mosse gave me a sense of authenticity in her story. She clearly did her research, but more importantly (to me, anyway) she made it feel epic and poetic. She didn’t shy away from violence or peril but it didn’t feel as though she was going for shock value. Everything had a place in the story.

I absolutely, unequivocably loved this book and am looking forward to reading more of her work.

Ruso and the Demented Doctor

In Book Reviews on December 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
Penguin Books 2009

Penguin Books 2009

Hello, my dears! I’m very much aware that it’s been a couple of weeks since I did a post. Apologies for that. I’ve had a bad case of the winter blahs. You know it’s bad when it takes me two weeks to finish a 463 page book. I just felt really burnt out and listless. I’ve started my holiday already, though, and am already starting to feel refreshed. And I’ve finally finished a book, so woo!

Nutshell blurb: This is a crime novel set in Roman-occupied Britain. Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman medicus stationed in Britain who haplessly ends up solving murders.

This is the second book in the series and I’ve gotta say, I’m not really feeling these books. I read the first one in the series earlier this year and when I looked it up on my Goodreads shelf, I noticed that I didn’t give it a rating. I enjoyed both of them, yet I came away feeling strangely unsatisfied.

In this book, Ruso takes his slave girl, Tilla, to a fort up north that is near her family. Just before they arrive, someone is murdered and mystery lands right in the doctor’s lap.

As you might know by now, the stories I love the most are the ones that are character driven. This is why I don’t read a lot of crime stories. I’ve found that in the (admittedly few) crime novels I’ve read that most of the effort seems to go into fleshing out the plot and the details that surround whatever mystery we’re dealing with, leaving the characters feeling a bit shallow or thin. I feel the same way about crime tv shows as well. I particularly love NCIS, Castle and Law and Order as they delve into the relationships and personalities of the people involved rather than just the crimes.

I think that this is perhaps why these stories aren’t fulfilling all of my storytelling needs. I really want to like these books more than I do, which is why I picked up the second one. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a crime story placed in Roman Britain? I can’t fault Ms. Downie’s storytelling abilities. She has a whimsical style that also makes me want to like these books more. There’s just something missing.

Ruso isn’t the best leading character. He is portrayed as an old fuddy-duddy but I think that he’s meant to be in his 20s. I don’t know if his age was ever mentioned. I picture him as an intensely boring middle-aged man in these books. (Let’s be clear that I don’t think that middle-aged men are boring. People of any age can be incredibly dull and this is just how I picture this character.) He doesn’t seem to care about much but just muddles through his life. Tilla, his slave girl, isn’t much better. I’m just not convinced by their interactions with each other and I don’t find either of them sympathetic at all.

I would speculate that my winter blahs might be partially responsible for my reaction to this book except that I read the other one at the beginning of this year and had the exact same reaction to it.

It’s a pretty fun read if you don’t pay too much attention to the characters but my overall reaction to this book is: Meh.

Raven: Blood Eye

In Book Reviews on November 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Transworld Publishers 2009

Transworld Publishers 2009

Nutshell blurb: Osric has been living in Abbotsend for two years. He has no idea where he came from. One of his eyes is blood-red and he’s looked upon by the villagers as the spawn of Satan. Some Norsemen come along, sack his village and take him prisoner. They also rename him Raven. What follows is his story as he accepts his fate with the Norsemen.

I was debating whether or not to write a post about this book. My reaction to it was ‘meh’ through most of it until about three quarters into it when it turned into a blinding, seething hatred. Unfortunately, this book has invoked my ire and therefore must pay for the complete waste of my time.

Please be advised that this post will be super-duper spoilerific.

Right, so the main problem that I had with this book before what we shall henceforth call “The Incident” is that the characters weren’t likable at all. “But they’re vikings, Buffy. Of course they weren’t likable,” you might be saying. And you would be right to do so.

However, I only agree with that to an extent and say that we have to be able to relate to some of the characters in the book. They don’t necessarily have to be likable. I’m thinking about The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric. The main character was evil incarnate but you knew that he was. It wasn’t sugar-coated. He did horrible things and it was amazingly chilling.

The problem with this story is that by the end of it we were meant to think of the main character as being noble and heroic but I found that he was pretty much the opposite of that. He started out being extremely wishy-washy and annoying. He didn’t know who he was, which is a fair point, but he was so tedious about it. Once he was captured by the Norsemen, things got worse. He cringed at a lot of the things that they did but at the same time he idolised them. It seemed to me like a classic case of peer pressure and going against your nature in order to fit in. As someone who constantly swims against the tide, this concept does not impress me. By the end of the book, he classified himself as a Norseman but there was no growth in his character. In fact, he got worse as the book went on. I wouldn’t have actually thought that was possible.

The one good thing about the book was that there was a strong female character in it. Unfortunately, she doesn’t show up until the last quarter of the book. Then the main character falls in love with her and he turns super creepy.

But let’s talk about “The Incident” and how Mr. Kristian broke my trust.

So, three quarters of the way into the book, the Norsemen and our ‘hero’ attack a fortress and take it. Once they’ve captured it, they celebrate. One of his mates drags a sixteen year old girl to him and tells him to take her and have fun. You see where this is going, right?

But of course, he’s not going to do it, right?  Heroes don’t do that kind of thing, especially that far into a book and especially after he’s just fallen in love with a different chick. RIGHT??

Well, guess what. He totally does.

But don’t worry because after he rapes her he totally feels bad about it. So obviously that makes it ok. Also, she was a no-name character that we don’t hear from ever again. So that makes it all better.

It’s such a cliche to say that I almost threw this book across the room…but I almost threw this book across the room.

Yes, I realise that vikings raped and pillaged across all the land but in terms of storytelling this doesn’t work for me. If you’re going to paint your main character as being heroic, he has to grow throughout the book. I don’t care what part of history we’re in.

The only reason I read that far was because the writing was excellent and I though that the story would improve as I went along. I was horribly wrong. The characters all sucked. (Except for the really cool, strong chick.)

There was an interview with the author at the end of the book and he mentions that he doesn’t plan his writing. He just comes up with it as he goes. I think  that some people can get away with it but in this book his lack of planning was evident. The story was all over the place and seemed to have no real purpose.

It has a pretty good rating on Goodreads which is probably because the writing is so good. Mr. Kristian definitely has talent.

However, I feel that he has betrayed me. He made his main character commit this heinous act FOR NO GOOD REASON! It didn’t serve the story in any way.

Frankly, this book pissed me off and I shan’t be reading any more from this author.

Saying Goodbye To Warsaw

In Book Reviews on October 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Saying Goodbye to Warsaw

Published by Michael Cargill 2013

*Please note: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Nutshell blurb: It’s 1940 and Abigail Nussbaum, along with her family and many other Jews, are evicted from their homes and moved to a ghetto in Warsaw. This is the story of their lives from that point.

First of all, I would like to thank Michael Cargill for sending me a copy of his book. Please check out his blog and Goodreads pages for more information about him and his books.

As per my usual style, I’m going to jump right in and tell you the things that I had problems with first so that we can get those out of the way.

There were a few things that jarred me out of my immersion of the story. I am very analytical when I read and I don’t like it when I come across a passage that makes me have to think about why it doesn’t sound right. I don’t feel that I should have to think about the phraseology when I’m neck deep in a story.

My first problem was that this family is a Polish family but as I read the dialogue, I thought that they sound distinctly English. It took me a while to work out how to explain that, but I figured out that it’s because there are contractions that only native English speakers would use such as “that’d” and also the sentences don’t always start at the beginning. For example, “Anything exciting happen while we were out?” rather than “Has anything exciting happened while we were out?”. It seems like a nit-picky thing, but I think that it’s very important as there were several times when it pulled me out of the story. I don’t think that it’s necessary to be formal with language and it’s ok to use contractions, but I think that it’s important to pick the appropriate ones.

And just so you know, I’m struggling with this in my own writing and that is probably why I picked up on it so quickly.

The other problem that I had was that Abigail’s brother seemed to keep doing things that scared her, even though he loved her to pieces and would never hurt her. This seemed to be a device used to increase the suspense of the situation, but it happened repeatedly. There was also an overuse of the term ‘German trick’ as everyone was paranoid that anything good that happened was a German trick. While I can appreciate the need to build suspense, I found that these two things were bit overused.

On to the good things.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that the most important aspect of a story to me is characterisation. It is of paramount importance. I will put down a book the instant that I find out that the characters aren’t realistic or if they’re superficial. The characters in this story were spot on. They were well thought out and and felt as though they could be people that you know. It was the relationships between the protagonists that I liked the most.

Abigail is such a sweet little girl, but not overly sweet. She’s resourceful even while maintaining a childlike innocence. She was very believable and I could relate to her as I’ve always been a daydreamer living in my own little world. Leo was a fantastic big brother who loved and wanted to protect his family. I could also relate to him as he was angry about the way people were being treated and he was completely helpless to stop it.

The points of view were interesting as Mr. Cargill frequently change the pov throughout the chapter. At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it, but as I read further I found that it made perfect sense and worked quite well. It was nice to know what the other characters were thinking and added to their believability.

I always hesitate before reading books about the Jews during this time period because I never know what I’m in for. Which is funny and a bit ridiculous because I love horror, zombies and anything of an apocalyptic nature. But unlike those genres, this stuff really happened and it’s more difficult to read because it could have actually happened to someone. Sometimes that’s a bit hard for me to read. It sounds a bit silly, I know.

I was pleased to read that the subject was handled extremely well and without gratuitous violence. Any bloody moments in the story served to move it forward and paint a picture of a specific time in the lives of these people.

Overall, I thought that this was a really sweet and touching story.

The Red Chamber

In Book Reviews on June 23, 2013 at 6:00 am

The Red ChamberVirago Press 2012

This book was fantastic. I loved it so much. It was a retelling of Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin which, according to the author, is an “18th century novel widely considered to be the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition”. I haven’t read the original (and I probably won’t as it’s a daunting 2500 pages long) but apparently Ms. Chen took a bit of artistic license to make the story a bit more concise. The result is a beautiful story which focuses on a few of the people who live in the same house.

Nutshell blurb: Two families live in a rather sizeable house and the story follows several people as they try to cope with the problems that result when people with different personalities live under one roof. The lives of these people are governed by a shrewd and domineering matriarch who puts the future of the family above the desires of the individuals.

Please note that there will be some spoilers below.

For some reason I could really identify with Xifeng (although I’ve certainly never experienced what she did) and her story moved me the most. She was smart, numerate, literate and oversaw the day-to-day running of the household. She was exceptionally good with the finances but she was somewhat feared by the other females in the house. In three years of marriage she could not produce a living child for her husband (after miscarrying once) so her man decides to take a concubine. The woman he takes happens to be Xifeng’s maid. These ladies have spent their entire lives together and it was incredibly humiliating for Xifeng. To make matters worse, the other woman ends up pregnant almost immediately. Xifeng must endure the disinterest of a husband who now has someone new whom he prefers and have the pregnancy flaunted in her face. It was really painful to read. I really wanted her to find some kind of happy ending which, of course, she doesn’t.

Another situation in the book that really made me sad was that two of the characters fell in love but were not allowed to marry. The guy really wanted to marry a certain girl, but the old bat of a matriarch refused and had him married off to someone else within the family. What made it moving was that there were no teary-eyed declarations of love or plots to run away together; just a calm acceptance of the inevitable. That’s the kind of thing that makes my heart ache.

At several points when I was reading this book, I would stop to tell my husband what was happening and he would ask me why I would want to read a book that made me so sad. (You might be asking the same thing.) The answer is that I love to wallow in emotion. When I’m angry, sad or happy (or any emotion in between)  I really like to channel it, savour it and, essentially, marinate in it until I’m well and truly pickled. It’s a delicious feeling and it makes me so happy when a book (or film) can make me feel this way. Even when it’s something that makes me sad.

The one negative thing that I would say about this book is that I really and truly hate a narrative that is in the present tense. I find it really jarring and it took me about a quarter of the book to actually get into it. Once I was able to forget about it, I really got into the book and was able to appreciate it for the beautiful story that it is.

Currently Reading…

In Library Day on June 17, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Shaka the Great

This is the latest Home book I’m reading. F bomb in the first sentence. Wowser… We’ll see how it goes and I’ll let you know.

As an aside, the insides of my thumbs are sore from all of the books I’ve been reading lately. They’ve all been kind of beefy books that dig into that spot where my thumb joins my hand. On both hands! I’ve considered wearing my husband’s weight lifting gloves when I read. Do you think that’s too dorky? Ok, then I won’t tell you about the Pivot Tables I’ve made of my TBR list…

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