Tag Archives: historical fiction

#26: Linnet by Sally Watson

Sally Watson is on a quest to have her books brought out from the dust and back into the hands of young readers.  Check out her website to learn more and be sure to read her bio.  She’s badass.

Fourteen year old Linnet decides she’s had enough of her boring, upper-class life so she sets off to London to find family she’s never met so she can be presented to Queen Elizabeth herself.

Clearly it’s not a well thought out plan.

She doesn’t get far before her heels blister and she meets Sir Colin Collyngewood who ever so graciously offers her a ride the rest of the way to London.  As he calmly present her with the facts of her ill-planned adventure, she is forced to admit she is in need of aid.

Unfortunately she doesn’t listen to him when he tells her he’s a liar and a rogue.  She find herself in an Oliver Twist den of pickpockets and beggars while “Sir Colin”  decides best how to use  her.

There are plots to overthrow the Queen after all, and she could come in useful there, or perhaps he could hold her for ransom.  In the meantime, she’s forced to live with the filthy poor and lower herself to breathe the same air.

Linnet is an interesting character.  For most of the book I found myself rolling my eyes at how unbelievably stupid she was and yet I still liked her.  I kept wondering why she hadn’t had her throat slit by the end of the first chapter, but of course Watson had much better plans for her.  Linnet’s transition is slow, but it happens.  You know it’s going to happen, but it’s still satisfying.  Watson carefully creates a running monologue for Linnet as she is suddenly thrust into a world she knows nothing about.  Although she’s always thought she’s made her own decisions, she realizes her entire life has been based on the small reality of her upper-class existence.

Watson’s books can be a challenge to find at the library, but I recommend hunting for them or buying a copy.  I hope her girls make their way back into bookshelves.  Anyone who is a fan of Anne of Green Gables would enjoy this.

#16: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I’d seen this book on just about every Read This Book Or You Suck list for awhile.  It belongs on all of those lists.

The structure of this book is fantastic.  Death narrates the story and follows Liesel, the main character.  He visits her on a few occasions, never stopping for her, but she catches his attention.  He speaks directly to the reader and lays out exactly what’s going to happen.  There are no surprises, but you’re not entirely sure when and how things are finally going to come together… or fall apart.  And even though I knew what was coming, I still had hope I was wrong.

I love the way Zusak wrote this.  Death makes little lists, he pauses to point things out for you, he talks about the colors that help him survive the survivors.  He is not cruel.  He is not kind.  He just is.  Zusak masterfully has him narrate Liesel’s story and uses her to view Nazi Germany during WWII.   It’s a story about growing up and the things we all deal with growing up, only Leisel has to do it in fear and with extra confusion.

I enjoyed the originality of the writing and structure.  It’s not just the way Death is used as the narrator – it’s the drawings and asides and leaps forward and back in time.  Zusak created something amazing here and I’m glad it’s on so many To Read Lists.

If you don’t read this, you suck.

#9: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini


Craig is depressed.

Starting in the 7th grade he had one goal: get into Manhattan’s super selective Executive Pre-Professional High School.  After that, follow all the rules.  Graduate with solid grades (not 93s).  Go to the right college.  Get the right degree.  Get into law school.  Become President.

He spends his middle school years prepping for the entrance exam.  He doesn’t need friends; he has flash cards.

And then, in a moment that represents every second he spent reading, studying, memorizing, working, prepping, breathing… he gets in.

Now what?

Things fall apart soon after he opens his letter.   He no longer has a single focus.  His world doesn’t revolve around the test.  He starts school and is horrified to learn that other people are a lot smarter than he is and simply getting into the school wasn’t the real test.

The depression starts.  The medicine starts.  The psychologist visits start.

And, of course, all the fun stuff that comes up when you’re a teenager start.

Not only does he have to deal with his best friend dating the girl he’s crazy in love with, he has to do with while throwing up from forcing himself to eat.

He’s telling us this in the past tense.  He’s getting us caught up to where he is now.  After getting to a point where he just can’t do it any more, he makes a plan to kill himself but winds up at the ER checking himself into the psych ward.

The rest of the book is him trying to figure it all out.  He has five days until he’s released.  He has five days to find something that works since nothing in his life is doing it for him any more.  He has five days to interact with the other patients and learn about their lives.

Five days.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons.  First, I loved Craig’s voice.  Vizzini captures a lot with a few simple sentences.  Second, Vizzini writes extremely well about depression.  The two things combined are painfully beautiful.  Vizzini writes down a few of Craig’s thoughts and creates an accurate teenage voice and an accurate internal monologue of the depressed.  It feels real.

Vizzini himself spent five days in a mental health unit.  He wrote this book soon after.  He does an amazing job translating the experience into words and sentences and paragraphs and finally into a book.

It’s a great read both for the story, the characters (all of them are solidly written) and the plot.  It’s the type of book that makes me wish I was still teaching so I could recommend it.

Pick it up if you enjoy well written YA.  Craig is a teenager without an adult author making him angsty.

#7: Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I am a white bleeding heart liberal about to review a book about slavery, so I need to apologize for being white and acknowledge my white guilt.  I'm not being sarcastic here.  I'm sometimes frozen with "Every single choice I could make right now is about to piss someone off so I'm just going to apologize for everything."  Then it's your fault if you get offended because I clearly told you not to get offended.  No tag backs.

I like picking up a historical fiction book and realizing I have no freaking clue about the topic.  Sure, I might know a few superficial things, but once I start reading I realize these things actually happened for real and I'm going to want to think about them for a bit.

Wench is that type of book.   I knew about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  I knew some slave owners raped their slaves.  I knew some treated them well, or as well as you can treat someone you view as your property and isn't really human.  I've thought about the conflicting emotions and weirdly defined relationships between the owners and the slaves.  I've thought about it in terms of today's psychology and wondered about the dynamics of a slave needing a master to survive and how horrible that is.

Wench does an amazing job with this last part.

Tawawa House is in Ohio and is a summer retreat for the men of the South.  They bring their slave mistresses with them and are able to have a sort of open relationship with them, but at all times the women know they are property and the owners know they are powerful white men.

Perkins-Valdez creates four women with four different attitudes towards their men and their situations.  The four only see each other over the summers and know nothing about what happens to the others when the summer ends.

The women represent, for me anyway, the basic dynamics of what I think it might have been like to be a slave mistress.  (See how carefully I constructed that sentence so I wouldn't presume to say as a white woman I understand?  It's really condescending, isn't it?  And yet I can't stop doing it.)

One mistress is in love with her master and believes he is doing right by her and their children.  Another has dissociated so completely that she doesn't even react when explaining the near constant cruelty from her master.  A third is pregnant and used as collateral against the other slaves and strives to keep the status quo to keep things from getting better or worse.  The last is angry and will fight to the death to stop her master from hurting her and to make a run for freedom.

The story follows Lizzie, the one in love with her master.  She is at times bemused by the other slaves' anger and fear towards their masters, yet she realizes she is in a delicate position and can lose her favored status easily.  She is at times naive, at times calculating, at times a survivalist, and she is often confused.

The books loops through two summers and Lizzie's back story as she starts to come to terms with who she is, who she is as defined by her white master and his wife, and who she wants to be as defined by herself.

I was pleased with the ending of the book in that it made sense and fit the characters.  But one relationship I couldn't understand was between Lizzie and her master's wife, Fran.  Fran has not been able to have children, so when Lizzie gives birth to first a son and then a daughter, she becomes more of a threat, even though she is still property.  Fran is at times is the stereotypical cruel white mistress of the house but other times treats Lizzie almost as a friend.  I was confused by Lizzie's responses as well.  She goes from distrusting Fran's every movement knowing that Fran can try to sell her or demote her back to the slave quarters, but then later confides in her as if they are friends.  I didn't understand the shift in their relationship.   There was one particular moment where Lizzie confides a major secret to Fran.  I didn't understand why she told her, and I didn't understand Fran's reaction to the news.

This would be a great book club pick because there is so much to discuss.  The part for me that was the most interesting was the relationship between Lizzie and her master.  She defines herself completely through him and lives in a reality that she has willingly helped to create where she can only survive if he is there to guide her and keep her his property.  There were times when I wanted to shake her for being so blind and having such misplaced hope and yet I understood why she thought he would treat her fairly and discuss their children rationally.  It is as if she forgets that he sees her and the children as his property. This part felt familiar and universal.  There's that idea that if you love someone hard enough they will change and that you can somehow make your emotions become logic if you hang on long enough.  Lizzie felt authentic because of this.  She made decisions that fit her position as a slave living in 1853.

It's a difficult book to get through because of the topic and the frustration I had for these women.  It was also difficult because I hadn't thought of these kinds of relationships, except in a superficial way.

A book like this makes me want to start a book club so I can hear what's going on in everyone else's heads.

#2: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Confession: I failed Junior year History in a blaze of apathy.  I realized that it summer school was going to be 99% easier than regular school.  The 1% difficulty percentage was having to wake up on the summer mornings.

Of course I don’t remember what that year covered, but I believe it was US History from the Civil War until sometime after WWII and maybe even up to Vietnam.

A stupid amount of history to try and cram into one year.

Luckily I realized in college that I enjoyed history and have ventured out on my own.  I am surprised at what I missed out on and wonder if it was even covered in class while I was sleeping or writing notes or reading a book or doing whatever it was I did for the semester.

One huge piece of American History I missed out on was the Japanese internment camps of WWII.

I do not know how this information slipped by me, but it wasn’t until I was 21 years that I learned we rounded up American citizens, forced them into camps and pointed machine guns at them so they couldn’t signal the enemy to bomb us in our sleep.

Is this being taught in high school?  I keep meaning to do an informal poll among my friends but then I get distracted by Facebook or whatever and it doesn’t seem important.  (The American Way.)

So…Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Amazing.

The story is told from the point of view of Henry, a Chinese American in Seattle.  The books slips back and forth from 50-something Henry in present time (1986) to 12 year old Henry growing up in Seattle during WWII.  Like many first and second generation children, he has a hard time figuring out where he belongs.  His father forbids him from speaking Chinese so that people will know he is an American.  The white kids at school don’t care that he’s Chinese.  He looks like the enemy, so he must be the enemy.

This is a common theme in non-fiction and fiction of the Immigrant Experience.  How does one straddle the two worlds while figuring out how to belong anywhere?

12 year old Henry meets 12 year old Keiko.  They are both at the white American school and neither is white.  Henry is horrified to learn that Keiko is Japanese, and then startled that perhaps this doesn’t matter.  His father would possibly kill him for befriending the enemy but the two of them are American and have much in common.

The plot follows the path of history: the war continues and Keiko and her family are sent to the internment camps.

The book does a lovely job switching between present day Henry and 12 year old Henry.  We see his struggles with his dual cultures and his growing friendship and love with Keiko.  He is powerless to do anything when her family is sent to the camps.  He has no voice at home or anywhere else.

While familiar, the book is not clichéd.   The characters are carefully developed and feel real.   Present Day Henry has a son and watching the third generation’s adaptation feels almost too easy compared to what Henry had to navigate, but this lends to the realism.

For some reason I didn’t have active guesses of what was going to  happen while I was reading.  I knew Keiko was going to have to end up at the camps and I knew present day Henry was going to learn something, but I went with the movement of the story and didn’t try to jump ahead in my mind.  When a character makes a suggestion, I was surprised and then excited because it made sense and why didn’t I think of it myself?

The ending was satisfying, which is always good.   Reading a book that disappoints you in the last chapter can feel like a kick in the shins.

This is a great read and fits in with readers  just learning about the internment camps, readers who already know what happened, and readers who enjoy immigrant experience literature.