Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland: A fictionalized look at the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter in the 17th century. I’d never heard of her before this, and I found looking up her paintings enhanced my enjoyment of the book. The story begins during the latter part of the trial of her rapist, and continues through her times in Florence, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and London. It’s interesting how the rape trial was all but skipped, seeming to imply that we all know that story already, even though it shaped the course of her life for the next several years. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but taken as a whole I’m a little disappointed. Huge chunks of time are glossed over, few of the characters are given any personality or physical description, and the main plot arc – Artemisia’s relationship with her father – feels like it was shoehorned in. Despite all that, I’m still glad I read it. Reading about painted is often inspiring, and I’ve now been introduced to another talented artist.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant (unabridged audiobook read by Rosalyn Landor; 15 hrs on 12 discs): When a particularly defiant novice, Serafina, is forced to join the convent of Santa Caterina, dispensary mistress Suora Zuana is sent to sedate her. Thus begins a friendship between two women living in a 16th century Italian convent. The descriptions of daily life are exquisitely detailed and often painfully direct. One of Dunant’s greatest talents is her ability to create multifaceted female characters who remained rooted in the time period in which they live, not anachronistically updated to fit contemporary sensibilities. If you enjoyed Dunant’s other historical novels, you’ll probably like this one. I did.

The Devil and His Boy by Anthony Horowitz

Devil and His Boy by Anthony Horowitz: I really wanted this to be fantasy. Devil in the title, wizard in the first chapter – I wasn’t crazy for expecting fantasy, was I? But it’s really not. It’s the story of Tom, a boy in the 16th century who finds himself plucked from his crappy country existence into a only slightly less crappy life on the streets of London, where he befriends Moll Cutpurse and aspires to become an actor. The whole plot was pretty predictable and the writing only so-so. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more were I still part of the intended age group, but I suspect I’d have been searching vainly for fantasy even then.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (unabridged audiobook read by Stephen Hoye; 14 hrs on 12 discs): Our story begins with the 1527 sack of Rome, and famous courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini is readying her household for the soldiers’ arrival. She and her dwarf companion Bucino, who narrates this tale, flee to Venice to start their lives over again. The description pulls no punches, as it were, laying it all bare without nary a euphemism in sight. But it’s not just crudeness and filth that is described this way, but great beauty and purity is as well. All in all, a sumptuous presentation of Renaissance Italy as told through the eyes of a cranky dwarf. I wish there had been more plot – I would have liked to know more about what happened to the Jew and the Turk, for example, and that more ends had been tied up by the end – but I suppose that isn’t always possible with first-person narration, and the looseness of the story did make it feel more realistic. I especially appreciated the historical notes at the end, explaining which characters were based on real people and where things deviated from fact. It appears there’s nearly as much history as fiction in this historical novel. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more by Dunant.

A note on the audio: Hoye was just okay. He didn’t really do any distinct character voices, which is fine, but he also didn’t pause enough between speakers so sometimes dialogue ran together and I lost track of who was speaking. And while I roll my eyes at people who insist on British accents for any English-language film not taking place in America, this book probably would have sounded better read by an Englishman. It seems to have been written with that cadence in mind.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (unabridged audiobook read by Michael Maloney; 5 hrs on 4 discs): Usually I like to have a sentence or two of synopsis to start off with, but the only thing I knew going into this was that it had something to do with the Holocaust. And honestly I think that was probably the best way. Bruno captured my heart, and frankly the end was a little traumatizing. While I can’t say that I necessarily liked this story, it was incredibly moving and a very important story. Definitely one to read by all, and a very good way to open the door to a conversation with children about the Holocaust. Definitely something that will stick with me for a long time.

A note on the audio: Maloney was quite good, being funny or sensitive as the situation required. This particular version also had a brief conversation between Boyne and his publisher, which was interesting but not strictly necessary. That is, I liked hearing about the book’s reception but I didn’t feel it added anything to my overall experience.

The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry

The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry (unabridged audiobook read by Karen Allen; 3 hrs 57 min on 4 discs): I was kind of disturbed by this tale. It is told by Katy, a young girl at the turn of the century, about a boy named Jacob, the titular “silent” boy. He is what modern folks would refer to as mentally challenged, speaking no words but able to accurately replicate the sounds he hears, such as a grindstone in motion or a horse’s whinny. This is not a light read, and may be one that haunts me for quite a while. I can’t really say why without giving away the ending, but if you’ve read it, you probably understand what I mean. There’s no happy ending, and from the start Katy warns the reader that most would find this tale “too depressing”. And it’s not that, exactly, but it’s definitely sad. Well written, but very sad.

A note on the audio: I am often wary of movie actors as narrators, but Allen was fine. She didn’t really do any character voices, but her soft and husky voice lent itself quite well to the general tone of the story. That said, I think this book would be better read traditionally, as it was written based on a series of real photographs which appear at the beginning of each chapter. Being able to see those would, I imagine, add quite a bit to the realism.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark: The 15th century is drawing to a close, and Luciano finds his life as a thief on the streets of Venice abruptly ended by the chef to the Doge, who takes him in as his apprentice. Meantime, the city is all astir about a mysterious book, said to contain untold secrets, spells, and other dangerous information. As he struggles to determine just how much his master knows about this book, Luciano sneaks food to his streetrat friends, witnesses the political machinations of assorted factions, and attempts to court a nun. It’s actually a fairly decent piece of historical fiction, but I have a soft spot for both Venice and that particular time period, so I may be biased.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross: Back in the Middle Ages there was a popular legend of a 9th century woman who, disguised as a man, became Pope. Whether or not you believe this to be the truth doesn’t matter much, because the story of this brave and intelligent woman is engaging regardless. I loved learning about all the strange superstitions and infuriating prejudices. Joan’s own journey captured my heart as well. Excellent historical fiction.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen: Hannah opens the apartment door to symbolically let in Elijah during a particularly boring Passover celebration with her family and suddenly finds herself in 1940s Poland just as all the Jews in the village are being rounded up to be taken to a concentration camp. I’ve read about the Holocaust on a number of occasions, but every new account reveals new horrors. Though this particular story is fiction, a lot of the details were straight from survivors. For a young adult novel, this is a pretty detailed description of life in the camps without being excessively graphic, and as expected, it’s something that will stay with me for a very long time.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Waterwoman by Lenore Hart

Waterwoman by Lenore Hart: This took me an incredibly long time to read – not because it was hard to get into, but because it lived in my gym bag for reading on the stationary bike. Then I stopped going to the gym because I was too busy with the 2011 BookCrossing Convention, then a week later I tore up the ligaments and tendons in my ankle, thus ending my biking days for a long time. So the other day I decided to pull the poor thing out of my disused gym bag and actually finish it.

This is pretty much an atmospheric book, one you read for the setting more than the plot. It’s 1920 and Annie Revels’s father has just died, leaving her alone with her beautiful younger sister and ailing mother. They live on a small island off the shore of Virginia where their father made their living as a waterman: harvesting and selling oysters and crabs. It’s a hard life, but one Annie takes to fairly quickly, donning her father’s old clothes and doing everything herself. When she meets a man who sees her as an attractive woman for the first time in her life, everything changes. Not a whole lot happens, really. It’s kind of a sad tale, but not really because I never formed any real attachment to the characters. My personal fascination with the first two decades of the 20th century was mostly what kept me interested, as the descriptions of that kind of life at the time were quite detailed. In the end, I’d count this book as one that passed the time, but not one I’ll remember in a year.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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