Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: The Madness of Grief by Panayotis Cacoyannis

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July 1969. While men are walking on the moon, life in London for sixteen-year-old Jane takes unexpected turns. On the point of falling in love with her best friend Karl, she discovers that there's more to her father's spectacular girlfriend than at first meets the eye. In the sweltering heat of a fast-moving evening, other revelations quickly follow, reconciling Jane with her father but also reopening wounds from the past, laying bare raw emotions kept suppressed for too long. And as the evening draws to a close, the night's drama has only just begun, unfolding in a sequence of violent events that threaten to have lasting repercussions for Jane and the people she loves...

Lightened by a gentle touch of humor, with magic tricks, sexuality and family secrets all playing a prominent part, The Madness of Grief is a mystery and a thriller contained in a coming-of-age tale of friendship, betrayal and loss. 

I read the Kindle edition of this.

If you look at Goodreads, this novel has been rated four to five stars almost across the board. I did see a few threes and a two, but it seems that the consensus is that this was the best book people have ever read. And I have to ask, what the hell did I miss? Why did this book get such high praises when I literally skimmed the final half of this book because I could not take any more of this.

Alright. So be forewarned that this review might be spoilery. I’m finding it hard to review this novel without dissecting it a bit.

I won’t deny that the language in the novel is well above average. This book was filled with highlights, which I won’t deny I enjoyed.

“A tortured man but a marvellous writer, complex and yet also entirely simple. As I always say, one is never too young to be reading Kafka, and never too old to be reading him differently.”

I’m going to venture that because of quotes like this, it was easy to get distracted by the flaws. At first I found myself distracted, but then as I read on, and became increasingly bored and disturbed, I realized that this book is horribly flawed.

The two major issues I had about this book was the characters and the pacing.

The characters were not well developed, to the point where they were caricatures of themselves. Jane was insufferably boring. She had no personality and spends all her time reading Kafka and pining after an older boy who sexually assults her, only for her to completely forgive him because reasons (at this point I started skimming). Her father commits suicide when Jane discovers his girlfriend Mia Mia is really a man called Jack and her aunt has an important sculputure stolen. And all these events take place in the space of 24 hours.

After all these events happened, I started skimming. The story was just so convuluted at that point and everyone and everything was just absolutely terrible. It almost seemed like it was a satire, but sadly, that wasn’t the case.

It was good that this wasn’t a long book, but at the same time I think that the length was a hindrance. If it was longer, the plot and the characters would have had more time to grow and develop more naturally. I think that there was some good potential there, just not enough room for it to come out. Which was a shame because I really think that this writer has some talent for prose.

Rating: one star

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

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New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
 
An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.
 
For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.
 
The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten

I read a physical copy of this, that I purchased at Black Tree Books in Oneonta, NY.

I actually finished this a few weeks ago but never saved it on my Goodreads list so this book isn’t quite fresh in my mind but hopefully I can do the book justice.

I don’t read too many historical fiction novels, but when I do they tend to be books from the later half of the 20th century. I’m not super proud of this fact but the truth is, I never really connected with history unless it was something I could relate to.

Lilac Girls takes place during WWII, a subject that I do have an interest in. I does take a little time to get aquainted to the three characters that the story is told by but once you get a sense of who everyone is, its easy to get hooked. Caroline and Kasis are great narrators. Herta is challenging, as she is clearly the enemy and gets the least amount of attention in the book but at the same time-I felt for her. Recent events have taught me that it is very easy to get swept up in what is happening around you and to buy in to what the people in authority are telling you. I wish her story had been different, but the juxtaposition from Caroline and Kasia was startling and worked well.

After reading this, I have found that now I want to read more historical fiction and I would like to try branching out to different historical periods. I recently purchased The Red Tent that has been on my radar for a long time and I am interested in giving Circe a go.

Rating: Four and a half stars

“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”

― Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls

Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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From Goodreads: The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

Unsheltered was a complicated book for me to read. Although Barbara Kingsolver tells a good story, I actually usually avoid her books as the two I have read previously (The Beantrees and The Poisonwood Bible) were great…until the conclusion. For me, bad endings are a deal breaker for me. I’d actually rather read a so-so book with an awesome ending then a great book with a terrible ending.
So until I heard the setting of Unsheltered, I had no intentions of reading it. In fact, the news of Unshelter’s release hadn’t even blipped on my radar until I saw it being discussed on my hometown’s Facebook group. Unsheltered takes place in Vineland, NJ-the very place I was born and spent the first 30 years of my life in. It was the first time I had ever heard of a book being set there.
So I decided to read Unsheltered, despite knowing that there was a good chance it was going to piss me off.
And well. I can’t say that I loved it, but at the same time I liked it more than I thought I would. Although I had lived in Vineland for 30 years, my knowledge of the town history was pretty much non existant. I had heard of Charles Landis, the founder of Vineland, but I didn’t know anything about him. I enjoyed the chapters that were set in the 1800’s, as I did not have a preconceived vision of what Vineland looked like, what the people were like. I could just read the story as a story.
The modern chapters were more challenging. There were parts of Vineland that Kingsolver got right, the neighborhood that Willa’s family lived in was accurate. The next door neighbors were particularly well developed and I really did feel like they were people I had actually known. But then there were details that were so glaringly obvious to a native that it was a struggle. For just one example, Kingsolver mentions the devistation of Hurricane Sandy often but in reality, Vineland wasn’t affected by the hurricane. A few months prior to Sandy, Vineland suffered devestation from another storm (which sadly claimed the lives of two young children who were camping), and because of the damage from the storm-Vineland was relatively unscathed by Sandy. A much smaller inaccuracy, but one that annoyed me was mention of Atlantic City Electric, where, in reality, Vineland has their own Electric Plant. If you live in Vineland, especially the neighborhood that Willa and her family did, you get electric locally.
Overall though, I enjoyed both stories and it certainly sparked my interest in learning more about the history of my hometown.
“The thing is, Mom, the secret of happiness is low expectations. That’s a good reminder, right there. If you didn’t lose your husband and kids all in one year, smile! You’re ahead of the game.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered