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Posts Tagged ‘historical novel’

Life sometimes pulls us in one direction … then another … then another. Grabs us by the collar and says, “You need to take care of this, but be sure you do this, oh! and this!” The end result is we writers look quite absent from our blogs from time to time. But be assured, this writer is still here, just pulled in all those directions.

There’s been a boatload of work, which, as a freelancer, I will never complain about; preparation for my being a guest speaker at an Animal Writers Workshop (you can check that out here); preparation for the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) June Conference coming up in 2 weeks; the usual (un)expected running around for all manner of things, some pleasant, some less so; and, of course, reading! No matter what else is happening, I am always reading.

To this end, I’m going to catch you up on the wonderful books I’ve enjoyed.

After reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein it was clear that I wanted to read more from this great mind. I perused Goodreads and requested A Sudden Light from my library. What a magnificent book. I will officially now read anything this man writes. A Sudden Light is a story told in the first person by 14-year-old Trevor who travels with his father to the family’s Riddell House in Oregon. His parents’ marriage is in trouble, and this trip to meet his aunt and grandfather is to allegedly settle some financial issues, put the grandfather in a nursing home, and dispose of the house. The home’s exterior is constructed of huge trees, and was built by Elijah, Trevor’s timber baron great grandfather. Trevor soon finds they are not alone in the house; there is a ghost, who has remained to see that Elijah’s last wishes be carried out, that the property be returned to a natural state as amends for the desecration he caused to the land. Somehow Stein has managed to put together an historical novel, a compelling ghost story, a tale of multi-generational conflicts and family secrets against a backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. Read more here and scroll down and visit The North Estate. Be sure not to read any spoilers!

Following this, I read The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, a novel (her first) with a most unusual premise. Four children, brothers and sisters edging into adolescence, hot and bored in the Lower East Side summer of 1969, decide to visit a gypsy fortune teller who is said to be able to give you the exact day you will die. The kids do it on a lark, just for something to do. The eldest brags about how far in the future her date is; she’ll live to a ripe old age. Another sibling shares, but the two others are clearly shaken and will not reveal their dates. It’s all just a joke anyway, right? The following chapters follow the life of each child, as the reader, in suspended animation, follows the sibling’s choices leading up to the possible fulfillment of their individual prophecies. Warm, engrossing, a fascinating premise, and very well-written.

I then read the next in the Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny. I never thought I’d be interested in reading a series by anyone (at least not after my beloved Nancy Drew mysteries from my childhood) but Louise Penny changed my mind. Inspired by a post by fellow blogger Cynthia Reyes, I picked up a couple of Penny’s books from my local library and was very impressed. So much so, in fact, that I decided to read the entire series from the beginning (not one right after the other, but interspersed among other reading.) What a great decision! Penny is an excellent writer who knows how to hook you from beginning to end. With a cast of characters that one becomes more attached to with each book, mysteries unfold to be solved by Chief Inspector Armand  Gamache of the Surété of Quebec, the premiere investigative arm of homicide in that province. The Brutal Telling is book #5 and calls upon Gamache to solve the murder of an unknown individual whose cabin is buried in the woods surrounding the quaint village of Three Pines. The evidence points to a seemingly unlikely character, which can only leave the reader quite puzzled. Are they  really capable of murder? The book ends with that individual’s arrest, and we are left wondering.

The next book in the series, Bury Your Dead, is considered a companion to this one, so I elected to read it right after, and it does pick up quite literally where The Brutal Telling ended. What is engaging about Penny’s writing is that she is not just writing simple mysteries, but increasingly complex novels which explore Canadian culture and history from Vancouver to Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to revered artists. Her characters grow realistically and empathically, and it’s very easy to become involved in their lives and the small town of Three Pines. If you like an absorbing mystery that will also give you a little more to sink your teeth into, look into this series. I suggest you start with the first in the series, A Still Life. There is a growing richness with each subsequent novel, and Penny will always keep you guessing until the end. Oh! And another small perk – whenever characters are eating, Penny always takes a moment to describe the deliciousness of their food. It’s a tantalizing little diversion each time.

I took a turn into another age group after this and read Crenshaw, a middle grade novel by Kathlerine Applegate, the author of a book I love (and own), The One and Only Ivan, an absolutely wonderful read. This story is about Jackson, a young teenage boy, and his family whose financial situation has changed from precarious to dire with them being forced to live in their minivan. Again. The story touches on an important subject, homelessness and the challenges faced by those who may be barely getting by. But there is another important character – Crenshaw himself, a very large cat. Crenshaw is Jackson’s imaginary friend from when he was a little boy, returned to be supportive of Jackson in his time of need … whether Jackson wants him there or not. Needless to say, this lends itself to moments of humor, but at its heart, this story is about resilience, friendship, and how we survive tough times. It was a good read, but for some reason, didn’t grab me the same way Ivan did. I’d still recommend it to the middle grade readers you know because we are all always facing some challenge or other, and this age group will appreciate Jackson and Crenshaw’s approach to a problem more common than most think.

I’m now reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, another terrific writer. I have read at least four of her other novels, The Poisonwood Bible being a permanent resident on a particular bookcase reserved for those books that I would definitely read again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about Flight Behavior somewhere in the vague timeframe of when I finish it.

Whether you are inspired by the stories mentioned above or are on a book path of your own, I will always wish you … Happy Reading!

 

 

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How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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