Archives for category: Historical

Genre: Historical Fiction

Notes: Book 24/50 North Korea is..interesting.

Review: I prepared myself for the book to disappoint me.  It has been hyped over the last year and every book club in America has probably read it.  (Mine is too)  But I am happy to say that Johnson did not disappoint!  I’ve never read a book set in North Korea, probably because the entire country cloaks itself in secrecy and mystery. We hear stories about work camps, starvation, and (when Kim Jong Il died recently) the adoration for their Dear Leader and his distinct pompadour.

While writing and researching this novel, Johnson actually received the opportunity to travel to Pyonyang and see North Korea for himself, which lends an air of authenticity to the narrative.  I’m sure he only heard the approved version of North Korean history and saw only approved sites but nevertheless, he stepped foot in North Korea.

This novel follows an orhpan who isn’t really an orphan named Pak Jun Do. He never knew his mother and grew up in an orphanage as his father was the orhpan master.  Consequently, he is mistaken for an orphan for the rest of his life and gets assigned to terrible duties like tunnel digging in the DMZ and kidnapping unsuspecting Japanese and South Koreans at night.  Pak’s life is ridiculous.  I mean, the trajectory his life takes from a simple misunderstanding of mistaken identity by American diplomats creates what is essentially a suspense thriller.  This novel isn’t just about North Korea and how insane and unpredictable of a place it can be, but how people can cope under extreme circumstances. It helps break the sort of cookie-cutter mold of poor people winning their circumstances and breaking free by offering a less than perfect protagonist.  Pak Jun Do kills people.  He sometimes operates under questionable morals and could probably be best categorized as opportunistic rather than an all around good guy.

Probably the best part of the book is how the communist government broadcasts Pak’s story in one chapter while in the next, we get Pak’s version.  The difference between the two is striking and helps readers understand how difficult truth is to come by in this regime. Plus, again, it offers that air of authenticity from Johnson’s painstaking research and visits to North Korea.  It feels real.

Bottom Line: The book is totally worth the hype! There are slightly graphic torture scenes which might turn some people off, but it’s the offhand way some truly awful things are mentioned that reall stuck with me after reading this book. Also, after reading this novel, I’m glad Kim Jong Il is dead.

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Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Notes: Book 13/50. Beautifully, stunningly written.  Swooned over the writing from page one.

Review: Sigh.  This book is lovely. I’ve never been to the Ukraine. I have no family members who were a part of World War II (at least none that I know) My grandfather was too young to be drafted, but I imagine his father may have been called to service.  I don’t really know.  Genealogy isn’t really my thing and my family is pretty bad at passing our history down.  But I felt connected to the story and its characters in a way I didn’t think possible.

**UPDATE** My mother emailed me to correct the misconception my family doesn’t share our history.  Ahem: My great Uncle as well as my great-grandfather were World War II veterans. My grandfather is a Korean War veteran, her cousin is a Vietnam War veteran,  my father and my uncle served during peacetime, and my cousin just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan. I knew about the more recent ones (cousin, father, grandfather, uncle, etc) but hadn’t a clue about the World War II vets.  Yay for history!

I mean, take the opening:

“There is a Ukrainian legend that once each year, on the night of Ivana Kupala, a magical flower blooms in the heart of the forest.  Anyone who finds it will be granted their heart’s desire: the ability to hear the trees whisper and watch them dance, the power to make anyone fall in love with them, the magic to make barren lands bear fruit and barren women fruitful.  It is a single red flower with several names: tsvit paporot, liubava, chervona ruta.  The legendary bloom can grant wishes, open the doorway to the past, and awaken spirits to visit with loved ones.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

I stumbled across this book on the Kindle Owners Lending Library tab on Amazon because I was trying to find a book under $1.99. Lupescu was a semifinalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Award for this novel, and I thought I would give it a shot.  $1.99 wasn’t too much to lose if it ended up being a shitty book. As soon as I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  I turned down an invite to go out  Saturday night because I was more interested in sitting in my pajamas reading.  (This isn’t unusual – sorry I’m boring, friends)

The story follows Nadya, a sixteen year old Ukrainian girl who lives in a rural village with her family as World War II begins to make Ukraine a really awful place.  Everyone around her dies.  She sees some of the worst things humanity can do to each other (multiple rapes, soldiers burning the skin off of a young Jewish girl’s hands, and soldiers brutally beating her boyfriend while taking him away – probably to his death) but somehow survives and builds a moderately happy life for herself in Chicago.  But the only way she can survive is by burying her past.

The Silence of Trees has a magical quality – almost like a fairy tale.  The magical quality is constantly in stark contrast with the war and hopeless concentration camps, but it reminds the reader there is still beauty in the world.  Nadya explains how spirits, spirits who live in the woods, the water,  the house, and even her own dead, speak with her and guide her in her life.  They push her to keep her traditions alive and not remain silent any longer.

In some ways, this story is typical. War torn survivor, crippled by survivors guilt, leaves her country to start a new life.  Gets tired of holding everything in, feels the need to tell her story before she dies, finds a happy ending (eventually). However, what sets Lupescu’s novel apart is the emotion, power, and folkore of the Ukrainian narrator. I felt her will to survive.  I felt her loss, the wondering about the life she could have had, the yearning for a relationship between her husband that wasn’t based on comfort, but on passion.

Nadya looked for the magical flower on a midsummer’s night – never found it, but wished all of the same. She didn’t wish for love.  Or to be spared from death.  Or for protection of her loved ones.  She simply wished for a happy ending. And you know what? I think her wish came true.

Bottom Line: Yes, the story has been told but the sheer beauty of the writing make it feel new again. Recommend for people who like Historical Fiction!

Yours Until Dawn Book Cover

In A Nutshell

    • Genre: Romance, Angst, Regency England, Historical Romance
    • Notes: Fluffy but with a plot strong enough to keep you interested the whole time.
    • Recommended For: People who like the Beauty as Florence Nightingale meets the Beast plots.

Proof that sometimes the run-of-the-mill romance novels can surprise you . . . I took a chance on this one because of it’s high rating on Goodreads and it’s synopsis reminded me so much of my favorite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, that I knew I had to give it a shot. I really love it when romance authors draw from the fairy tale plots and use that story as a skeletal structure and give the reader something to enjoy that also holds a sense of nostalgia. Another successful retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I’ve reviewed on this blog is Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier. While both of these books draw from the same source material, the results are emphatically separate.

Marillier’s book is completely steeped in Irish Mythology and celtic legends and so it’s result plays more with the fantasy, mystery and magic of the original fairy tale. Yours Until Dawn on the other hand plays up the victimized “beast” character in Gabriel and introduces a new kind of “beauty” in Samantha who is his strict, but caring, nurse.

SYNOPSIS

Gabriel Fairchild’s valor during battle earns him the reputation of hero, but costs him both his sight and his hope for the future. Abandoned by the fiancée he adored, the man who once walked like a prince among London’s elite secludes himself in his family’s mansion, cursing his way through dark days and darker nights.

Prim nurse Samantha Wickersham arrives at Fairchild Park to find her new charge behaving more like a beast than a man. Determined to do her duty, she engages the arrogant earl in a battle of both wit and wills. Although he claims she doesn’t possess an ounce of womanly softness, she can feel his heart racing at her slightest touch. As Samantha begins to let the light back into Gabriel’s life and his heart, they both discover that some secrets — and some pleasures — are best explored in the dark …

I enjoyed reading this very fluffy and fun book. It’s not often I find Regency Romances, that contain a good amount of angst, fun. Medeiros’ style, in this novel, reminds me greatly of Julia Quinn’s ability to play up humor alongside heart and angst. That being said, it’s not the best regency romance novel I have every read. It wasn’t always a driving plot that kept me awake through the night, but it was able to surprise me with it’s twist towards the end. It’s not an earth-shattering twist but I didn’t see it coming and it made the book stand up and make me take notice.

As for the characters, Gabriel is a bit whiny in the beginning. He plays up the role of solitary, victimized hero in a completely predictable way and Samantha responds in the expectably strict, but caring nurse way. All that predictability being said, I was continually curious as to why Samantha sought out the position and Medeiros keeps you guessing.

You could say this book was an unexpected surprise as I expected to be reading the same-ol’ same-ol’ regency romance and I found a mysterious, light, and sensual romance. So if you’re looking not to think too hard but want a book with a more substance than the “Cotton Candy Novels” I mention in another review then this is your book.

★★★1/2

In a nutshell

  • Genre: Romance, Mystery, Regency
  • Notes: A fun mostly sappy jaunt through a regency era romance between an over-bearing, but caring man and a naive but stubborn princess.
  • Recommended For: Garwood fans, Those looking for a light read and some sap.
When formulas are enough . . . I read this book a long time ago and forgot a lot of it and thought I’d re-read it for this blog. I enjoy Julie Garwood’s easy reads and while she reminds me of Kleypas’ plotlines her writing lacks the spunk and dynamics of Kleypas. Before I get ahead of myself let’s get the basics out-of-the-way. The synopsis is as follows:
Orphaned and besieged, Princess Alesandra knew that only hasty marriage to an Englishman could protect her from the turmoil in her own land. To the amusement of her makeshift guardian, Colin, younger brother of the Marquess of Cainewood, the bold raven-haired beauty instantly captivated London society. But when Alesandra was nearly abducted by her unscrupulous countrymen, the fighting instincts that won Colin a knighthood for valor were kindled. Deceiving himself that he wanted only to protect her, Colin swept her into a union meant to be a marriage in name alone…yet Alesandra’s tender first kiss and hesitant caress ignited a wildfire in his soul. As the lovely princess dashed headlong into unforeseen dangers, Colin would follow, knowing he must claim her as his own forever. Now he would risk life itself before he would lose this sweet, tempestuous angel…
Things I enjoyed about this book:
  1. The mystery regarding the murderer who you get little snippets of his inner monologue continuously throughout the novel. I can honestly say I didn’t guess who it was until the end.
  2. I thought Alesandra’s sense of humor was good. The ways she gets around Colin while staying true to her promises was very cute.
  3. I liked that Alesandra found ways to utilize her ability with numbers and was shown to be intelligent, if at times common sense stupid.
Things I got tired of in this book:
  1. I found it obnoxious after a while when something would happen or something would be said and Garwood would take the time to explain what that meant. The first time was annoying the 10th time it felt like she thought I couldn’t read sub-text. Hel-lo we got it.
  2. While in romance novels (especially set in Regency times) I realize the men are more domineering and that women had/have fewer rights and little say. I also acknowledge that sometimes in these books its sexy when the man takes charge. But there is also a point where you go from in charge to controlling and Colin had moments where I wanted Sassy Gay Friend to come and let Alesandra know what’s what.
    1. For example, at one point Alesandra is coming down the steps wearing a necklace and  “[Colin] didn’t like the idea of Alesandra wearing it. ‘I have a special fondness for this necklace,’ she remarked once they were settled inside the carriage and on their way to the ball. ‘But I can tell from your frown you don’t care for it. Why is that, Colin?’ ‘Why do you like it?’ Her fingertips brushed the necklace. ‘Because it belonged to my mother. Whenever I wear it, I’m reminded of her. The necklace was a gift to her from my father.’ Colin’s attitude immediately softened. ‘Then you should wear it.’ ‘But why did it displease you? I saw the way you frowned when you first noticed it.’ He shrugged. ‘I was displeased because I didn’t buy it for you.’ She didn’t know what to make of that remark.” I do. In the words of SGF, “Tina Turner? We need to private dance it outta here!”
I don’t want people to think I hated this book or that Colin was an abusive character. I just found that it hit one note for the majority of the novel and between the controlling Colin and the pedantic narrative I got tired half-way through and only finished it because I couldn’t remember the murderer. But Garwood has a system where she takes damsels in distress puts them with men-in-charge who have a vulnerability and makes a happy-ever-after with some sap and a litttle danger. It works.
I also acknowledge that I haven’t read this full series so there might be other aspects of this story that I’m missing out on. But I will say if you can’t pull me into reading a series from one novel then the series is damaged, in my opinion.
I wouldn’t go out and buy this book, but it’s a perfect beach read or I’m on the bus and don’t want to make eye-contact read.  Garwood is still a good writer in my opinion and I am going to re-read some of her other novels I remember liking (like her Laird’s Series) so more on that later.
RATING: ★★★

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Art

Notes: Apparently this is a movie starring Scarlett Johansson.  This book did not make me want to see the movie at all. 

Review: Mehhhhhhhh.  This book sucked.  I think I would have liked it when I was like 14, but now I demand more plot.  More character development.  More reasons why characters act the way they do.  I hated the main character, Griet.  She was annoying.  And didn’t seem to have any motivating factors for acting the way she does, other than being a lovestruck teenager.  Boo.

Regardless of how I felt about this book, I finished it in two days, so that must say something about the narrative.  I have no qualms about quitting a book in the middle, and I actually finished Girl with a Pearl Earring so it must not have sucked so bad.  Or maybe it was that I barely left my couch Sunday afternoon due to a monster hangover.

In this book, Griet, the main character, leaves her family’s home and work for a Catholic family in the same city.  Her father lost his eyes in an accident at the ceramic tile factory where he worked, and he can no longer support his family.  Griet picks up the slack and moves out.  The family she works for is the family of a painter, Vermeer, who paints portraits of women and sells them.  His most famous painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, is apparently Griet.  Shock and awe.  Not enough to base an entire book off of.

Okay, that’s a lie.  Books have been based off less.  But this book needed more pizzazz.  Chevalier created some tension between Vermeer (who she falls in love with but can’t do anything because he’s married with like 11 children) and Pieter, the son of a butcher who wants to marry Griet.  And Griet is a total douche to Pieter because she keeps holding out hope Vermeer will fall for her or something. I’m never quite sure what Griet wants because if Vermeer ever tried anything with her, she would probably run away anyway. What do you want?!

This book seems very well researched and I could picture The Netherlands/Holland very easily.  I don’t know how historically accurate it was, but it seemed correct.  I could picture the markets and the canals and every day life in that time.

Bottom Line: Skip it.  This book didn’t have enough drive to keep it interesting.  I do love historical fiction and young adult fiction, but I still expect them to be well-written.

 

Daughter of the forest cover image

In a nutshell

  • Genre: Fantasy, Folklore Retold, Adventure, Romance
  • Notes: One of those books that reminds you why reading is so much more engaging than tv or movies.
  • Recommended for: Fantasy lovers, fans of The Mists of Avalon and similar female-centric fantasy novels.

A beautiful book written for those who love giving themselves over to a story . . . I remember when I first picked up this novel. I had just finished The Mists of Avalon and I had loved how that story was told, but I wanted a book that felt closer to one heroine instead of several. My friend recommended I pick this one up and I did.

Now, I picked it up when I had just started college and there is a little bit of exposition that I found tedious as I was extremely busy at the time. So after about 50 pages I put the book down and forgot about it.

Then around winter break I found it right where I had left it and picked it up again – and then I couldn’t put it down.

Before I get ahead of myself let me show you the review:

A beautiful retelling of the Celtic “Swans” myth, Daughter of the Forest is a mixture of history and fantasy, myth and magic, legend and love… To reclaim the lives of her brothers, Sorcha leaves the only safe place she has ever known and embarks on a journey filled with pain, loss and terror. When she is kidnapped by enemy forces and taken to a foreign land, it seems that there will be no way for Sorcha to break the spell that condemns all that she loves. But magic knows no boundaries, and sorcha will have to choose between the live she has always known and a love that comes only once. –Barnes & Noble.com

Ok – beyond the fact that after reading that overview and realizing that B&N does not spellcheck their writing – eh hem – we can move on to business.

Yes, DotF is a retelling of the celtic legend of the Six Swans which is about an only daughter who loses her 6 brothers when they are turned into swans. In DotF, the story opens as Sorcha, our heroine and the youngest sibling to 6 elder brothers and daughter to a hard, distant, and somewhat cold father, is faced with many changes in a very short time. Right off the bat, Marillier gets you with her exquisite narrative. The story is told from Sorcha’s perspective and you can see her go from naive, innocent child to jaded yet wise young woman.

A completely unique part of this story is the fact that in order to get her brothers back, Sorcha must not speak or mutter any noise until she finishes a designated task. This makes her inner narrative so rich and full and makes her perspective about how people interact with her very intriguing. Before this book I had never read a story where the main character could not speak, but what and how she is able to communicate is a point that drives the story.

An aspect I want to clarify about this review is that while I did say this is a romance, and I do believe it is, it is much more of a coming of age story. The story centers around Sorcha and the trials she has to face and overcome in order to save her brothers. I also would like to warn that there are some pretty dark aspects of this story – it is not a young adult novel.

As for what I think could be improved . . . well I don’t know if this would improve the story but I would wish for some more insight into the character Red. Sorcha has such a difficult time reading him, that I sometimes lost his motivations. Now, that being said, I think the whole point is that Sorcha having trouble reading him is a key aspect of her character so I don’t know if it would improve anything.

But truly this story has it all for fantasy lovers: adventure, magic, mystery, witch hunts, suspense, suspicion, intrigue, and murder. It’s definitely one to be enjoyed in a comfy chair with a cup of tea on a long quiet day. Get lost in the beginning of the wonderful world of Sevenwaters . . . you can thank me later.

Rating: ★★★★★

Seer of Sevenwaters Cover

In a nutshell:

  • Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Saga, & Romance
  • Notes: Surprised me how much I enjoyed. Unlikely hero, likely Marillier heroine, and a story that keeps you guessing. A lovely addition, I wouldn’t read it as a stand-alone.
  • Recommended For: Fans of Marillier, People who love a new take on an old legend, Fans of The Mists of Avalon.

A seer who sees the future meets a man who can’t even see his own past . . . Marillier has done it again – made me want her to write more and more novels in the sevenwater’s series. Here’s hoping! Before I get ahead of myself I should show the synopsis:

Sibeal of Sevenwaters, the teen fifth daughter of the Lord of Sevenwaters, has always known she wants to be a druid. In this romantic follow-up to 2008’s Heir of Sevenwaters, Sibeal’s uncle Ciaran, her mentor, orders her to spend a summer on the sheltered island of Inis Eala, away from her training, to determine whether the contemplative life is truly for her. At first, Sibeal thinks that Ciaran is punishing her. Then a sudden storm brings a shipwreck and several mysteries that challenge Sibeal’s resolve and vocation. Why does the Norseman Knut seem to be holding something back from the islanders, and if Svala is Knut’s wife, why is she so terrified of him? And who is the handsome, amnesiac man Sibeal has found washed up on shore? Readers will thrill to this strong, heartfelt tale of the Sevenwaters family and their magical exploits.

I think I have to be clear that my opinion of this novel is colored by my entire experience with the previous Sevenwater’s books. That being said, I don’t know how much I would enjoy Seer of Sevenwaters as a standalone novel. I think it’s still a wonderful book, but so much of the enjoyment is hearing about the characters you’ve read about in the past novels and seeing where they continue to grow. That’s one of Marillier’s best points as an author. A character in her series is never finished, she develops them to the end and beyond. In fact, directly after reading this book I went back to the first novel The Daughter of the Forest and I was amazed how well woven the entire series is.

While I felt that one of the strongest points of this book was its continuation in developing the characters plot lines from the previous novel, I could also seeing it be a detracting factor. For those who aren’t familiar with the previous novels, reading this as a stand alone may seem confusing at points. I also sometimes felt as if the insight into the secondary characters took away the reader’s attention from the primary characters and that made it seem like those characters story’s were rushed.

Speaking of strong aspects of this book: I really enjoyed the unconventional plot line of having a woman’s inner struggle to be between choosing a life of holy vocation or a life as a wife and mother. You really don’t read many books where a woman is choosing between a spiritual leader role and a man. Some might feel that most books have a woman making a hard choice between A or B, but it’s definitely a twist on the same-old.

Another thing that Marillier does extremely well with her characters: is her ability to make a character a hero without forcing them into a macho or warrior role. If anyone is a warrior in this book, it’s definitely Sibeal. She will follow the will of the gods off a cliff, but not in an ignorant way. If that makes sense. But Ardal – he is certainly no warrior. A poet, academic, philosopher – but not a fighter of men. Nonetheless I found him to be one of the bravest heroes in the Sevenwaters Series.

Overall I enjoyed the book immensely. If I had one true criticism it would be: I found the ending lacking. One of my biggest pet peeves is when a book is amazing and thorough only to end rushed and abruptly. While I didn’t find this abrupt, I found I was left wanting more. And not just more Sevenwaters (I always want more Sevenwaters.) I wanted to feel the ending in a more complete way.

Bottom Line: If you enjoyed the previous Sevenwaters, than I don’t even know why you are reading reviews, when you should be finding this book and if you enjoy legends retold, with feminist overtones, spiritual undertones, and a love story, this is the book for you.

★★★1/2