Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

via Algonquin Books, workman.com

Water for Elephants is a book I have wanted to read for a very long time. Unfortunately for me, it has also been one I’ve managed to avoid buying for a very long time, too. Something to do with all the hype surrounding it—sometimes I just don’t want to read something everybody and their mother is already gushing about. But, speaking of mothers, mine had gotten a copy from the library and spent a good part of a freakishly warm Chicago spring day snorting and laughing on the front porch while she read. I had no choice.

I wasn’t sorry. Chapter One introduces us to our main character, Jacob Jankowski in the present day from the hallway of his nursing home; “Either there’s been an accident or there’s roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds.” As it turns out, there is a circus setting up right outside. The presence of the enormous canvas tent sends Jacob’s mind reeling to a time long past, and thus begins our story.

We are taken back to the end of Jacob’s final year at veterinary college, during the Depression, a time when his parents have mortgaged their house to pay for his education and are accepting beans and eggs in lieu of payment for their services as veterinarians. A gruesome accident takes both of Jacob’s parents just before his final exams, and unable to concentrate on the test booklet on his desk, he walks out of his exam and keeps walking until dark. He comes across a dark set of train tracks, and desperation prompts him to hop the train that comes barreling out of the darkness; the decision changes the course of his life. Discovered and taken in by some working men on the circus train, Jacob is introduced to the wild, transient life of the circus.

The story has its ups and downs as Jacob falls for Marlena, the wife of his psychotic, mercurial boss (Uncle Al), and she seems to return his feelings. Along the way, the show takes in an elephant who seems clever enough, but refuses to listen to the commands of Uncle Al, resulting in some gut-checking animal abuse. Jacob, like any decent human, can’t stomach the way Uncle Al treats Rosie the elephant (which, incidentally, is similar to the way he treats his wife Marlena). The circus drives on as Jacob falls more and more for the two very different girls, driving him to become more and more bold in his actions.

I am not going to give away the climactic ending, but I still haven’t told you everything.

The way this story is told may not be unique—a nursing home prisoner battles through the ghosts of his past—but the way Gruen narrates through the eyes of a sharp-witted man who sees his essence draining away in a land of Jello salad and ubiquitous pills makes you sympathize with Jacob and silently root for him to damn them all and escape to something better. He’s certainly feisty enough.

The characters in Water for Elephants are real and likable. A motley crew of rag-tag performers and laborers, each has his own place in the circus hierarchy. True, it may be a love story, but isn’t some lovey-dovey sap story that you read with a box of tissue. This is a story that has sex, violence, joy, misery and grit. I think part of this owes to the fact that our narrator is a young man in his 20s, as well as the fact that life on the circus route was rough.

Bottom line: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I didn’t love about Water for Elephants, with the exception that it concluded with a pretty convenient ending, which I know bothers some readers. The journey to get there, however, was one helluva ride. Don’t wait as long as I did. Go pick up a copy!


Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist

via goodreads.com

My mum handed me Maid to Match (Bethany House Publishers, 2010) back in early February, right around the time I started this blog. I was working on other darker things at the time, so the fluffy romance got pushed to the back burner. I know romance novels (and their authors) often get a lot of grief for being what they are, but I’m firmly rooted in the camp that they have their place and purpose and are just as important as anything you’d find on the literary fiction shelf. For me, TRNs (trashy romance novels) are equivalent to dessert or a piece of Vosges Haut-Chocolate in the middle of a stressful work day. Sometimes I like picking up a book with strong female leads and sexy men and knowing that everything is going to turn out alright! (Though I have to amend right off the bat that Gist and Bethany House take the T out of the TRN!)

After finishing a dark, disturbing young adult novel, Maid to Match was exactly what I needed. Set in stunning North Carolina, on the Biltmore Estate in 1898, the story begins with the introduction of Tillie Reese, our immediately likable heroine. Tillie, the head parlormaid, is on the brink of becoming a lady’s maid to the Mrs. Vanderbilt. She craves the elite position and everything that goes with it; books, baths, fashionable dresses, travel and better pay (“so she could help her family and others in the community who were in need”). Tillie’s big heart and level head make her a shoe-in for the position, not to mention that Tillie’s over-bearing mama has been grooming Tillie for the position all her life.

Enter Mack Danvers, the rugged mountain man with a heart of gold. His handsome countenance, plus the fact that his twin is currently a Vanderbilt-employed footman, kick him right onto the fast track of servitude. After all, anyone in the upper echelon of turn-of-the-century society can employ a handsome footman, but think of the prestige that would come with employing a matching set.

via biltmore.com

The heavy responsibility of de-mountain-manning Mack somehow falls on sweet Tilly and of course, sparks (squeaky clean sparks) fly. Tillie does her best to avoid Mack’s advances because one does not engage in inter-service romance, especially if she wants to be come lady’s maid. However, the more time our hero and heroine are forced to spend together, the more Tillie learns about the real reason Mack has emerged from his mountain home and the more her heart softens toward him.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that it introduced me to a setting and time in American history that, in retrospect, seems to be overlooked in the romance genre in general. Gist’s well-researched storyline waltzes the reader through the lush Biltmore Estate with its modern swimming pool and bowling alley, shady orphanages run by dodgy characters, and the beautiful Carolina mountains and their clans. Gist outlines in her author’s note just what was historically accurate and what she stretched for the sake of the story, which I thought was pretty cool.

Let’s talk about S-E-X for a sec. Bethany House is a publisher of Christian fiction and romance, and when I started Maid to Match, I wasn’t aware of the fact. Being much more accustomed to the bodice-rippers of Stephanie Laurens and others like her, I felt a little, well, frustrated that all that sexual tension between Tillie and Mack never had an outlet, or rather, that the outlet was merely alluded to. It makes more sense upon my discovery that the book came from a Christian publisher, but was odd and, er, anti-climactic at the time.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a light-hearted romance with a sweet, likable heroine and some fascinating American history lore, Maid to Match is a good one to pick up. Just be aware that this is no titillating TRN!


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After, by Steve Hockensmith

photo via Quirk Books

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the monster mash-up that started it all back in 2009, has inspired an entire sub-genre of literary classics (and the lives of the writers who penned them) that have been infiltrated by the dark side. Now, after a New York Times Best Seller prequel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls), Quirk Books delivers the actual chronological sequel to the original mash-up, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After.

The beginning of Dreadfully Ever After picks up the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy four years after the original mash-up ends. The zombies (or as they’re referred to in polite Regency society: the dreadfuls, the unmentionables, the sorry stricken, or the zed words) are still terrorizing the country, but finding herself now the wife of a respectable gentleman, Elizabeth has hung up her katana and throwing stars to lead a life of quiet wedded bliss. It would seem, however, that our favorite kung fu couple are experiencing a problem of their own in the form of Elizabeth’s unshakeable, unplaceable discontent. Deep into a long walk and serious discussion, the pair run into a boy from the estate and fail to notice the “odd tilt to the boy’s head and the gray palor of his skin and the smell of death and feculence that drifted with him onto the road.” Consequently, Mr. Darcy is bitten and infected.

The warrior within dictates that Elizabeth should promptly behead her beloved and burn the remains. Instead she turns to her nemesis and Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of the most renowned zombie slayers in the country. We learned in the first book that Lady Catherine was working on developing an antidote to the evil plague. To help save her nephew (in spite of the fact that he once spurned her strange, sickly daughter), she sends grief-stricken Elizabeth, still-silly Kitty Bennet and a happily wife-free Mr. Bennet to a dreadful-infested London and the source of the fabled cure. Mary Bennet, unwilling to be left out of the excitement, shows up in London to join in the fray.

Add an eccentric, fiery tempered Scotsman with access to the cure and his handsome, idiotic dandy son to the cast, along with a mysterious Man in a Box, a couple of mangy dogs, a sneaky ninja with an eye for Kitty and a very important bunny, and you’ve got Dreadfully Ever After.

The story lines—both the Bennet family’s quest for the cure and the intrigue abounding back at the residence of Lady Catherine, where Darcy is being held, er, healed by his aunt and creepy cousin—moved at a clipping pace. Dreadfully Ever After spotlights characters who were previously thrust into the shadows, as Anne de Bourgh has a pivotal role in the book. I also really enjoyed the development of Mary and Kitty as they each broke from the static, typecast roles thrust upon them in the original, the mash-up and its prequel. I was impressed with how author Steve Hockensmith went beyond simply writing a goofy, fun monster mash-up to including actual character development and ending the book on, dare I say, a didactic note? I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it was one with an unmistakable moral lesson.

The creativity with which Hockensmith built up a Regency London society plagued with dreadfuls had me giggling, snorting and oversharing with my poor mother, who has absolutely no interest in anything dark or, well, dreadful. But as a die-hard snobby Brit-lit enthusiast, even she was chuckling at some of the excerpts I read aloud. For example, the book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, back-to-back, surrounded by a herd of recently unearthed unmentionables. “As his beloved Elizabeth shattered the nearest zombie’s skull with a perfectly placed axe kick, Fitzwilliam Darcy saw in her eyes something that had been missing for a long, long time: joie de vivre… Although one couldn’t say the creatures had joie de vivre, both joie and vivre being long beyond them, they were undeniably enthusiastic in their quest for succulent flesh.” Such little quips are sprinkled heavily throughout the narrative, making the book much more light-hearted than your average zombie infestation.

Bottom line: The newest book in a well-established series, Dreadfully Ever After, is undeniably fun, well-written and engaging. I definitely recommend it, even if you’re not typically a reader of zombie lore.


Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah’s Key was an enjoyable, albeit slightly depressing read.

The story begins in Paris, July 1942, from the perspective of a little girl. The girl, whose name isn’t actually acknowledged until much later in the book (I’m not sure I understand why) and her family are being rounded up by the French police with other Jewish families for eventual deportation to Auschwitz.

Fast forward sixty years and we meet the main narrator of the book, Julia Jarmond, an American ex-pat living in Paris with her French husband and daughter. Julia is a journalist covering the 60th anniversary of the roundup and, as the back of the book says, “stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah…”

The two stories are well-woven into easy, digestible sections, each story doing its job to pull you further in to the separate story lines until they collide in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.

The story, besides being some well-written historical fiction, draws in a lot of themes, some I could identify with better than others. For example, Julia deals with a lot of things that, being single and childless, aren’t things I worry about. An unstable marriage, pregnancy problems and uneasy relations with the in-laws are issues that my married friends and family members can probably better sympathize with and I’m guessing feel closer to the narrator because of it.

In a nutshell: I enjoyed reading the book. It was informative about events in the past that I was unfamiliar with, and I liked that it was written by a French author and much of the story centered around contemporary France’s attitude about the events of the past. There were a lot of unhappy events in the story, so while it was a good story and interesting to read, it was a bit of a downer. The end, which I won’t give away, does end on a hopeful note though.

And: This book (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) includes a brief interview with the author about the book, recommended further reading titles and a list of discussion questions. The book raises a lot of good discussion points and I would definitely recommend it for a book club/reading group.


The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was incredible. As soon as I finished it, I couldn’t wait to read it again (the only thing stopping me was the promise I made to a friend to lend it to her as soon as I was finished). The story reads like a historical travelogue and has a little bit of supernatural edged in, sewn together with suspense and skillful storytelling.

I almost hate to mention the fact that the story centers around vampire lore and the existence of a real vampire because the book is so well-written that it carries its own regardless of whether you are into supernatural books or not. The bottom line is that Elizabeth Kostova made the ten years she spent researching and writing this book worth every day. It’s a beautiful story that includes themes of family and love, journeys through Europe and Eastern Europe spanning the 1900s…

The one word that comes to mind when I think of this book is beautiful. In fact, after writing this, I think I will read it again.

View all my reviews