The Bookworm's Library

A room without books is like a body without a soul -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tag: Historical Fiction

The Lost Sisterhood by: Anne Fortier


OK — I admit it. I don’t always adhere to the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” There are a lot of reasons that a book will make it onto my “to read” list. The cover, the description, recommendations, book reviews and — as is the case with this one — because I have already read something of the author’s. I loved Fortier’s previous book, Juliet for a myriad of reason. So, when I saw this one, I just had to read it. It is also true that when you read books based on authors, some books will be better than others. This is one of those that didn’t quite live up to the first book and certainly didn’t live up to my expectations.

In her first book, Juliet, Fortier demonstrated a writing style of combining historical fiction with a contemporary story line.  In this work, Fortier takes on the speculated history of the Amazons, overlaid with an archaeological mystery.  The two meet at the junction of the discovery of an unexplained burial site of a woman in a well — with a very strange arm band wrapped around a skeletal arm.  Like her previous work — the supposition is that the events and people of the past have carried on into the present day.  But in this case — the whole thing just got weird.  For me — part of this problem could be that I have never been all that interested in Greek mythology.  Consequently, my knowledge of the Amazons is limited at best.  But Fortier’s development of this fanatical group of women is both overbearing and weak at the same time.  

Fortier does know her mythology — or at least did some background research — and presents it in such a way that the reader comes away interested in learning more about the historical background this book is premised on.  But the Amazonian women were developed into more of a religious, fanatical cult, than anything else.  The fact that Diana’s crazy grandmother asserts early in the book that Diana has a connection to this mystic group of women (before she disappears into who knows where), is a strange and somewhat tenuous connection.  It is just a little strange to see a struggling, non-tenured professor up and run off to who knows where to investigate the subject of her one true passion — while turning herself into a laughing stock all along the way, is just a little much.  Her impulsive venture into investigative archaeology is sets her up as a character that is flighty, unreliable and unbelievable from the beginning.  

As a character — Diana comes across more as the stereotypical damsel in distress, than an expert in her field of study.  I consistently felt like she knew less than everyone else around her when it came to the history she was called to assist with, supposedly to provide context and background to the archaeological dig.  She was out of place, out of time and out of sync with all the other characters –making it less believable and more fantastical than other books I have read.  Unlike her previous book — Fortier has created a protagonist that is supposedly an expert in her field.  She is someone that is suppose to be one of the foremost experts on the subject of the Amazons because she has been studying them since childhood.  But everyone in the story just seems to know more than she does.  

Much of this book has the feel and style of a cross between Indiana Jones and Dan Brown.  There is constantly someone in the background that is trying to kidnap, steal, or otherwise impede and research project and archaeology dig.  The near misses become increasingly more unbelievable with every event.  Every other character has an ulterior motive — and everyone can see that except for the protagonist.  It really made me want to shake her and tell her to wake up.  Like Dan Brown — the fanatical cult in the background is more creepy than anything.  Their motives — while transparent from fairly early in the book — are also a little unsettling in their mysterious attempts to impede investigative discovery — while still remaining hidden in the background.  Simply put — it was just too much.  

By the end of this one — I just felt like Fortier was being more patronizing than anything.  She decided she was going to live up to the expectations created from her first book.  But instead of creating something that was unique and new — she took the course of least resistance and followed what I hope is not developing into a formatted style of  constant repeats with different names and places.  

Juliet by: Anne Fortier


There are some books that you read because they are highly recommended.  Sometimes you read them because they are on the best seller list.  I have been known to read books because of the cover, the description on the back and even because they were gifts.  Each of the books I read offer varying degrees of interest and make the reading experience unique.  This is a book that is well worth the journey and one that I love to make regularly. 

On one level, this is a simple revisiting of Shakespeare’s  Romeo and Juliet.  A modern version of the old story, to create new interest for modern readers; built on the framework of a timeless story.  The characters, the setting and even the feel of the story are all much more modern.   But it doesn’t change the depth or profound emotional impact of the original.  

What I found magical about this book, however, was the description of the setting and the alternate story line.  The take on this story actually overlays the traditional Romeo and Juliet with the purported true story behind Shakespeare’s masterpiece.  The alternate story line with a historical foundation is really a beautiful and strong addition to the book.  It makes it into something more than the reworked, overdone story that has been revisited in too many different formats.  

Fortier demonstrates a real passion for her creation of Siena, Italy.  I have always been a setting reader.  I love a well created and envisioned setting.  It really adds to a story and helps raise a simple book, up to the level of art.  Characters and plot are the aspects that most readers look at, when they are considering if they like a book or not.  Are the characters real, the dialog and the situations possible and believable?  These are the most common elements used for making up good stories.  However, setting is frequently overlooked for the influence it can have in a story.  In this book, Siena really manifests a strong presence throughout the story.  That influence is found in both the modern and historic timelines — which really adds depth to the creation of this amazing place.  More than once, I found myself believing I was actually there.

The setting is even more amazing for the historic influences that Fortier uses.  I  love her writing and how she relies so heavily on historic, physical real situations to set this retelling of Romeo and Juliet apart from all the others.  I particularly love how these descriptions work together, intertwining and weaving an interconnected dual story that sustains everything about this book.  

I also came to identify with her characters, as well.  At least the modern renditions. The historic presentations of Romeo and Juliet are pretty pat and move little beyond what is found in all the other versions of the story.  But Julie and Alejandro are really fun.  They provide the reader with a mystery, romance and adventure all rolled into one.  All of the characters bring elements of mystery, with strange happenings, shady men, connections to the Italian mafia and more.  

This is a book that I really enjoy.  It is an example of all the reasons I love to read.  No — it isn’t deep, intellectual and profound reading. But I really enjoy the escapist quality of this book.  Sometimes, as  reader, I simply need something that helps me step  outside of my everyday life and find somewhere “other” than the here and now. This is one of the books I go to, when I need this kind of therapy.  

White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by: Paul Clayton


One review I read on this book described it as mediocre.  Now I understand why.  I wouldn’t say that I liked it or hated it.  Rather, I came away pretty indifferent to the whole thing.  For whatever reason, there just didn’t seem to be anything about it that drew me in and made me want to keep reading.  I have tried to figure out what it is that produced this response — as I do with every book I read, which evokes a similar reaction. But somehow, there just wasn’t anything in it to set it apart from other books.

Historical fiction is a challenging genre to write.  The author is compelled to stay within the confines of a history that is already known and there are no surprises in the plot.  Consequently, there is a greater need for description,  character development and that undefinable quality that makes the time and place live and rise above the bald facts presented in text books and historical records.  That is not to say this can’t be done — and done well.  I once heard it said that History is the saga of the victor –while the conquered fall into shady obscurity.  This simple fact is the reason that history, as we believe it to be, is constantly changing, with each new discovery that comes to light.  There are always two sides to the historical coin — and a good author will find ways to open the door to the possible, on what is, essentially, a one sided presentation of the historical record.  

That said, Clayton’s characters are well developed and have dimension.  But it was easy to figure out their motivations.  Clayton was up front about what drove his characters.  There wasn’t any real feeling of discovery — a process that in the real world we refer to as getting to know someone.  This journey is essential for any one individual — real or fictional.  Half the fun of getting to know someone is finding out “what makes them tick.”  In creating characters that had little left to discover — Clayton took the mystique and sense of enjoyment out of the book that comes with getting to know someone new.  

The story, itself, never really delved into the realm of the possible.  Yes — we know that the colony disappeared.  The reasons were probably myriad.  A series of errors, misjudgments and poor planning.  But this leaves a lot of room for Clayton to develop an intriguing story.  But he seemed satisfied to rely on the well known facts for story development.  His speculation into what really went on in those last days — the daily life that led up to the problems that ultimately resulted in tragedy — is lacking.  I felt like he was simply going through the  motions, without delving deeper into the story behind the historical facts.  

Another aspect that is imperative for historical fiction, is a great use of description. Where we already know the basic structure and image –it is essential to fill in that basic outline.  Clayton never really accomplished this.  The story is lacking in light and shadow. The perspective is generic and broad.  I think Clayton would have been better served to tell this story from one side– rather than all of them.

Ultimately — Clayton ran into trouble all the way around.  If it was his intention to write a history, he brought little new to the history books already  written.  I could have found as much in my old high school texts.  If it was his intention to write a fictional account of a historical event — he failed to bring life and dimension to the mono-colored historical record.


The Dovekeepers by: Alice Hoffman


This is a book that I found simply stays with me for numerous reasons.  But I think, perhaps, the most powerful aspect is just that — the power of skillful writing throughout the story.  I have had an on again off again opinion of Hoffman’s books.  Many of them I have either had a hard time getting in to — or I have struggled to relate to the characters.  I get really frustrated with an author at times — and I realize this is simply unfair.  The author has an artistic vision — and they must stay true to that insight and story.  But, one person’s vision does not always work for someone else.  That is the struggle I have had with Hoffman’s writing.  Somehow, I just struggle with the style overall — which makes it difficult to get into a story, with the staying power to get through to the end.  Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I picked this one up.  In the end — it was the subject and title that drew me in.  I have always loved history — and historical fiction is certainly one of my preferred genres.  Stories that are set in the early Hebraic faith, and the history and challenges faced among the Jew’s have always captivated me.  So — Hoffman had her work cut out for her — at least with me, as a reader.  I had a great deal of expectations in relation to what I wanted to find in this book.  Simply put — Hoffman delivered in spades!

The women of this book are amazing in the stories they have to tell.  Each of them have beautiful lives to share and those lives are as unique as they are powerful.  Set in a time of great upheaval in the land of Israel — the Jewish people were being hunted, enslaved and annihilated.  The Romans were going to great extremes to bring the Jews to heal — and the resulting devastation was truly horrific.  In the midst of this upheaval, each of these characters — Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah — make up the foundation of this book.  Their stories manifest the challenges, joys and heartaches that accompanied life, as women in ancient Israel.  Their struggle to find and hold onto faith in the midst of rebellion and chaos really give a sense of realism to this story.  Hoffman’s research adds depth and dimension — allowing the reader to see into the minds and hearts of these four intriguing women.  Each of them manifests the struggles of being considered inferior in their families and among society.  Each of them gives insight into how women learned to live in this society, where they were denied so much — while at the same time so much was expected.  Each woman was the product of heartbreak and tragedy, and it is these back stories that allow the women to go from being characters — to being individuals with depth and dimension.  

The tragedies that forced these women into the troubled lives they live — also drove them and the remains of their families into a tragic appointment with destiny.  They ultimately find themselves in the last bastion of Judaism – Masada – where they will ultimately meet a troubling, mysterious end.     While history records the events leading up to the tragedy of the mass suicides of Masada — the questions of why continue to haunt the historical and archaeological records.  This story dares to ask not only why — but also to delve into the last, desperate motivations that would ultimately lead to the final collapse of the Jewish state, through the ignominy of death at their own hands, as opposed to the alternative — death or enslavement at the hands of their oppressors.  The feeling that Hoffman captures in the Masada stronghold forces the reader to step out of themselves and consider the struggle of the last choices facing this handful of people.  

Hoffman demonstrates a real aptitude for incorporating thought and emotion into the lives of her characters.  The myriad motivations that continuously trouble the characters are both moving and powerful.  And yet — the story is simple, in that the ending is already known.  But it is this knowledge that lends a sense of fatalistic desperation in not only the lives of the characters — but also in the mind and heart of the reader.  The desperation is, at times oppressive it is so powerfully developed.  But for all of that — the reader just can’t seem to walk away.  

This book makes for a great read.  It is captivating in the questions it explores, while relying on the history, to give depth and emotional tension to the whole experience.  Hoffman demonstrates a strong mastery of the use of language, and demonstrates how eloquent an author can be, when combining the drama of history with a well accomplished gift for language.  This is one that I would recommend to those who love historical fiction, drama and history.  It opens the door on what might have been, while reflecting on the struggles of a once condemned people.  

Shantaram by: Gregory David Roberts


This is one of those books that it is simply fun to take the journey.  A fictional account based on the Roberts’ life, this book is an amazing read.  Not only is Roberts’ own life and story compelling, but the novel presents a powerful look into the world of India.  The setting, the characters, the eloquence with which the story is told — it is all an amazing example of what excellent writing can do.  This is a book that I look forward to revisiting time and again — with little concern that it won’t live up to the first time.  Every read adds depth and greater perspective in a very philosophical way.  

Reading this as an American reader — I think one thing that I found both troubling and graphic, is the portrayal of the penal facilities and the occurrences that Lin experienced.  It may be naive — but living in the United State I take certain things for granted.  This book challenged not only my commonly held belief that prisons are humane and appropriate in their treatment of prisoners — but it also challenges many of my beliefs and understandings about the world as a whole.  I frequently love to read books that are set in other countries, cultures and times.  But rarely do these books challenge my perceptions of the world.  It is difficult and sometimes painful to have one’s beliefs challenged, especially when your beliefs are strong and loyal to a certain ideal.  But the change that ensues leads to a broader perspective of the world, expanding understanding and bridging the gap between people and cultures.  This is one book that works as a catalyst for this type of change.  

The story is haunting.  This is a word that I see frequently in book reviews.  However, in this instance it is most applicable.  The book not only provides an experience to the reader, but also a feeling.  It lives, indelibly marking the reader.  It demands that the reader pay attention, engage and delve into a world both foreign and familiar.  I love the feeling, although at times it was filled with pain, discovery, wonder, love, hate, and ultimately defined the term beauty.  

I particularly loved the characters.  These characters are more than simply creations of Roberts’ imagination.  They are very real, tangible and over the top influential.  Each of them demonstrates a powerful personality that continuously draws the reader deeper into the story — which in turn makes for an amazing reading experience.  Lin is a strong character, in both presence and insight.  But that strength comes not from just a well developed character.  He is strong in his weakness, demonstrating myriad aspects of the human personality.  Prabaker is one of those characters that add life and enjoyment through his carefree, loyal dedication to not only his friend — but his acceptance of the world on its terms.  He does not force the reader to adopt Roberts’ idea of his character, but allows the reader to find in Prabaker the truth and understanding that they will, simply through knowing him.  All of these characters in this story manifest this same quality.  Reality through simplicity and good character development.

I also loved that Roberts didn’t develop this story in the idealized world.  Rather, it is set in the slums, among the criminal element, among the ex-pats and even within prison walls.  This does two things.  First — it provides a strong counterpoint to those parts of the story set in the upper, influential class.  Especially in a very class conscious society.  Second — It helps the reader find reality in fiction.  This book steps beyond story telling into a living quality that is so worth the read.  At over 900 pages — it can appear daunting.  But from the first chapter — the reader is captivated. Suddenly time, length and the outside world go away and there remains simply the book — and all the messages it has to tell.  


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