Monday, August 30, 2010

Historical Fiction

Some of the librarians at the Bridgewater Library decided to read some great non-fiction this month that fell into the category of science and nature writing. Maybe you'll find something in this list that will interest you too.

Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart

Blurbed by Kay

The main character of this novel, set in 1900’s Africa, is Okonkwo, an arrogant leader in a tribal village in Nigeria, who lives by his ancient tribal rituals. He has an unyielding need to be seen as a strong leader and a successful man. The book presents the beliefs, rituals and daily life of the tribesmen and women. Their lives are difficult and full of superstitions, as they follow the tribal laws of their leaders without question.

Okonkwo is beset with problems as he attempts to follow the laws of the elders. Through his own selfishness he fails –hurting his status as a leader of his tribe. As colonization starts to take place in his area of Africa, Okonkwo can not accept the white man’s laws or the religious changes they bring. Tragic events unfold as daily life changes and tribal society sees “things fall apart”.

Dick, Phlip K. – The Man In The High Castle

Alternate History

Blurbed by Chris

The year is 1962, fourteen years after the Axis won World War II. The Japanese and the Germans have divided the conquered United States into three parts; one each for the victorious parties, and one between them for the remains of the once-great country. The Cold War has begun between the two superpowers, eyeing each other over the ocean and the aforementioned North American buffer zone. And through it all, the world is obsessed with two books: one, the I Ching, consulted daily to fortell the future; and the other, a wildly popular -- and widely banned -- historical fiction novel with the crazy premise that the Allies instead won the war. The book starts off slowly, but all of the seemingly disconnected stories start to converge on each other. There are lies within lies, and secrets within secrets. The language has changed as a result of the occupation, losing articles and occasional verbs (the book takes place mostly in the Pacific Japanese-owned states, and the language patterns reflect that). As the lies and lives start to intersect, the book speeds up. There is political intrigue, confusion, and inner truth to be found.

Guthrie, Jr, A.B. – The Big Sky and The Way West

Blurbed by Brendan

These were two books that I really enjoyed reading when I was young and I'd recommend them as among the best historical fiction you'll find anywhere. The Big Sky is the story of the fur trappers who were the first white men to see the great American West. Its sequel, The Way West tells the story of life on the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon.

Guthrie's characters Jim Deakins, Dick Summers and, especially, the young Boone Caudill, are real and believable. They learn to be strong and competent but they are facing a vast wilderness. There is so much adventure; the stories flow smoothly and are beautifully told. The dialogue is gritty and adds to the realism. After reading these books, you'll feel as if you've personally experienced life on the frontier.

Mitchell, David – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Blurbed by Morris

Plot: At the turn of the 19th century the tiny man-made island of Dejima in the Nagasaki Harbor was Japan's only trading post with the Western world. This outpost was controlled by the Dutch East India Company with which the young Jacob de Zoet accepts a five-year position as a clerk hoping to save up enough money to return to the Netherlands and marry his fiancée Anna. The naive Jacob is thrust into a foreign world of unscrupulous trading and charged with making sense of the accounting on the island in light of the increasingly corrupt dealings. Along the way he meets and falls in love with the mysterious, scarred midwife Orito Aibagawa who has been granted permission to study on the island under the Dutch physician Lucas Marinus after delivering and bringing back to life the Magistrate's stillborn child. When Orito's father dies deeply in debt her stepmother sells her into the service of the Mount Shiranui Shrine where she discovers a horrifying secret. Orito's first love Uzaemon, Jacob's confidant and translator, attempts to rescue her when the shrine's nefarious intentions are revealed, meanwhile Jacob becomes the de-facto leader when British forces arrive and attempt to wrestle control of the Dejima away from the Dutch.

Appeal Factors: I choose to read this book because I'd previously read Mitchell's charming, semi-autobiographical bildungsroman Black Swan Green. I haven't read much, if any, historical fiction, so I thought I'd stick to an author whose works I've read and enjoyed. Thankfully, it paid off as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an epic and wonderful novel filled with mystery, romance, and adventure. This book is about a lot of things. It's about religion, it's about trading, it's about sailing, it's about language barriers and culture clashes, but at it's heart this book is about romance, unfulfilled romance, and its myriad consequences. Perhaps Motörhead said it best in their song, “The Chase is Better than the Catch.” The most interesting aspect of the book, at least for me, is the setting. Japan circa the turn of the 19th century is a time and place I knew nothing about and as far as I can tell it's not a setting that's been utilized much in fiction, at least not in English-language fiction. Though he's fiddled with the historical timeline slightly and the characters themselves are the product of his imagination, Mitchell has faithfully rendered the time period as accurately as possible and it's evident that a tremendous amount of research went into writing this book. I would highly recommend this book to any fan of literate historical fiction.

Moran, Michele – Cleopatra's Daughter

Blurbed by Carolyn

A fictional account of the life of Cleopatra’s daughter Selene (and sons) after Egypt was conquered by Octavian.

The story begins when Selene is ten years old and is told from her perspective. After her parents deaths, Selene and her two brothers are taken captive by Octavian and are brought to Rome. Although a work of fiction, the author has researched this time period in history to provide accurate descriptions of the people and events of that time. Even people who are not fans of historical fiction or non-fiction histories will find this book an interesting read.

Poole, Sara – Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance

Blurbed by Yvonne

What do you do if you've apprenticed to your father, who was recently murdered, and don't want to be cast out on the streets? Simple, you murder your father's replacement so you can have his job. If you are trying to get the job as Rodrigo Borgia's new poisoner this is probably the best "get yourself noticed" technique available and Francesca Giordano does indeed get the job.

This book is all told in first person by Francesca who affords an interesting view of Vatican and Roman politics. This is a turbulent time in the papal and Roman history and her job gives her a front seat to the action. She is a likeable, strong and clever heroine, blinded only by her desire to get revenge for her father's death.

The first in a series, the reader will be able to see the evolution of Borgia's dynasty and how his infamy (and that of his children) comes to be.

Rose, M.J. – The Reincarnationist

Blurbed by Yvonne

This novel is part historical fiction, part thriller and part paranormal adventure. Josh, a news photographer, is injured during a terrorist attack and since he's regained consciousness his reality hasn't been the same. He's living multiple lives. He's experiencing a past life in Ancient Rome, one in 19th century New York City and he still has to deal with his life in the present. When objects and locations from his "memories" confirm that he is remembering past lives the role he plays in the present will help right wrongs of the past.

This is a very Dan Brown-ish adventure with a bit of the paranormal. There are lost art works, secret societies and the fast pacing of The DaVinci Code with the added bonus of a cliff-hanger ending.

Weir, Alison - Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Blurbed by Jane

According to the author’s notes at the end of the book, this story was told as historical fiction rather than a biography since there were gaps in the actual history that needed to be filled in. The story revolves around Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1151-1204, and in particular her 37-year marriage to King Henry II. Both of them are very strong-willed. Although the marriage starts out with a strong physical attraction, it suffers from power struggles, betrayals, and rivalries.

The book is well-written and carefully researched. Due to the detailed descriptions of the many conflicts and arranged marriages and other alliances involved in the building of empires, the book is lengthy and, at times, slow moving. At other times, the pace is faster.

I would recommend it to someone interested in medieval European history. It is also the story of an extraordinary woman, her marriages, and her children and has appeal as a fictionalized biography.

Wood, Brian and Riccardo Burchielli – DMZ

Alternate History

Blurbed by Chris

Twenty Minutes into the Future, the citizens of the Midwest rise up and form the Free States Of America and start a second civil war. The USA is pushed back to the Northeast, and Manhattan is now the titular DMZ, too big for the FSA to take over, but too difficult for the USA to defend.

Monday, August 23, 2010

True Crime with a Twist

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo

This is the story of the forming of the Vidocq Society, a group of the world’s top forensic specialists who meet monthly in Philadelphia to assist on cold cases. The book mainly focuses on three men (a detective, a psychologist and an expert at facial reconstructions) who are the best of the best at what they do and came up with the idea of the Vidocq Society. These three have EXTREMELY disparate personalities and reading about the interplay between these men is entertaining. The levity of these interactions is needed to offset the cases. Told in short chapters, some chapters will reveal the solution of a cold case in its entirety, some a piece of a case that will be returned to in later chapters, all are quite gruesome.

If you are a fan of true crime this is a book not to be missed. The Society has solved 90% of the cold cases presented to them. This is a rare glimpse into the working of the minds of three noted criminologists who all look at the same problems in different ways.

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

Back in 1857, on 31 Bond Street in New York City, the brutally murdered body of respected dentist Dr. Harvey Burdell was discovered. His housekeeper, the widow Emma Cunningham, was arrested and charged with the crime. Defense Attorney Henry Clinton answers her plea for help and mounts a defense to save her from the gallows.

This novel is based on the actual murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. Interspersed throughout the book are excerpts of articles from The New-York Times and other contemporary papers. This was a HUGE deal back in 1857 that captivated the city for weeks. Today we would hear the condition of the body (the dentist’s head was practically removed through the violence of the knife attack) and know that this slight woman would not have the strength to do it; however, in 1857 forensic science was in its infancy and the word of this scientists were a large part of her defense.

The narrative jumps between present day and the time period leading up to the murder. It is a very straight-forward style presenting the facts and unaffected style, much like true crime. The author brings the story a step further than the newspapermen of the time were able, she creates a back-story, a reason that Dr. Burdell would have been killed and how it was accomplished. An engaging read that really brings the reader back, revealing much about the justice system and the role of women, blacks and Lenape Indians at this time in Manhattan’s history.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Edge of Your Seat Reading

I really enjoy books that keep me guessing until the very end; especially twisty horror and mystery stories. These two books are prime examples of my favorite things!

So Cold the River by Michael Koryta

A down on his luck filmmaker, Eric Shaw, finds less than thrilling work putting together photomontages for funerals. When the opportunity to create a documentary of the life of a wealthy ailing man comes along he jumps at the chance. This quirky story could be his ticket back to Hollywood. Instead he is embroiled in a story which transcends time, and the past starts trying to break through boundaries to change the future.

This is a dark and suspenseful novel with quite a bit of creepy thrown in. Yes, there is a touch of the weird here, but not too much. Just enough to send a shiver down your spine and wrap your blanket a little tighter.

Need further encouragement to check this one out? Check out the West Baden Springs Hotel website. This is where the filmmaker stays and a lot of the action occurs.

The Popular Fiction Book Discussion Group will be meeting at the Bridgewater Library in the Administrative Conference Room on Thursday, October 19th at 7:00pm to discuss So Cold the River. Since we’re just in time for Halloween, if you plan on enjoying this chiller of a thriller and coming to the book discussion, bring along a title or two of books, or movies, which have scared you.

Think of a Numb3r by John Verdon

Imagine getting a letter in the mail that asks you to think of a number from 1 to 1,000. Picked a number yet? Okay. Now what if you received a follow up letter that guessed your number? A letter that states that the writer knows all about you and what you have done... How freaked out would you be? Retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney’s college friend is EXTREMELY freaked out. The former detective joins the hunt for a psychic (and psychotic) killer who seems to know everything while the police know next to nothing.

The killer is playing with his victims and the police and that playful tone comes across in the writing in a very foreboding way. It’s an interesting mix of a fast-paced plot with contemplative musing. A mix the author pulls off with style.

Rarely am I stumped by the clues revealed by a murder scene described in a book. I’ve read so many thrillers that I usually get an inkling of how a crime was committed, if not why. Not this time. I didn’t know what happened until the detective figured it out. And wonderfully enough it all made perfect sense. I can’t wait to see what this author comes up with next.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Life During (and After) the Civil War

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

Mary Sutter is a woman with a strong desire for knowledge. Already the most renown midwife in Albany, New York, she wants more. She wants to be a surgeon. Every avenue she tries is blocked to her, so she takes a bold step and heads to the capital at the start of the Civil War to become a nurse and learn all she can. She learns more than she bargained for as she is pressed into service as a surgeon performing as many as 35 amputations in a day.

This book is not for the squeamish. There are detailed descriptions of the suffering of wounded soldiers and their surroundings. The reader will be confronted with smells, sights and sounds that some may never wish to experience, even vicariously. This book will be of particular interest to those readers who want to learn more about the history of medicine and how much the profession of doctors, surgeons and nurses in wartime and peace have changed over time. History fans will also enjoy reading about the strategy behind some Civil War battles and the ineptness of the soldiers and generals of the Union in the early times of the war.

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

This novel begins with the death of one of the main characters, former Confederate General John Bell Hood. Another main character, his wife Anna Marie Hood, already passed away weeks before. The third, ice maker Eli Griffin, is charged with publishing the “true” memoirs of the deceased General and destroying the war memoir (Advance and Retreat) his former colleagues in arms wish to publish to glorify his memory. The story is told through the journals of the deceased couple and the man with a deathbed mission trying to puzzle out the inconsistencies and holes in the stories of these two lives.

General John Bell Hood was a real person who really did publish a war memoir entitled Advance and Retreat. While much is not known of his life after the war he did marry Anna Marie and had eleven children. This is the story of what his life may have been like after the war.

This is a well constructed story which realistically portrays how two people, even close, married ones, can have different perspectives and insights into a situation, and how withholding information can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the situation. This is an engrossing story of life in the south after the war where racism ran rampant and the defeat was still strong on everyone’s mind. An excellent choice on audio since each of the three characters narrate different chapters and a different voice actor is used to portray each one.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Living in the Wild Wild West

Quite coincidently I just read two books set in the same time period, one a history, the other a fictional journal. I learned a LOT about this tumultuous period in our history and what happened when very different worlds collided.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick

I am embarrassed to mention how little I knew about this epic battle. I knew Custer lost, and that's about all I knew. This is a detailed and absorbing history of the battle and the circumstances that led to this epic battle.

The battle tactics, the last third of the book, is the part I found the most fascinating. So many things went wrong simultaneously that led to the massacre of Custer's army. Bad judgment and wasted time were the direct causes of many of the casualties. Since there are no human survivors of Custer's final moments Philbrick uses interviews from soldiers in other battalions to reconstruct what may have happened during the last stand. Since many of the recollections conflict the author allows the reader to know them all and make a personal decision on what may have happened that day.

The Non-Fiction Book Discussion Group will be meeting at the Bridgewater Library in the Administrative Conference Room on Thursday, October 14th at 1:00pm to discuss The Last Stand.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

This is one of those "What If?" books. In this case, it is the story of what may have happened had the United States Government decided to go along with Chief Little Wolf of the Cheyenne's proposal for peace. The Cheyenne are a matriarchal society, so he proposed having one thousand white women marry the warriors of his nation so their children would be learned in the way of the white and the Indian, and would be accepted into our society. In return, the U.S. Government would receive one thousand horses. Needless to say, this didn't happen, but this is the story of the women who responded an ad in the paper for women to live in the wilderness and serve their country.

Told entirely in journal entries and letters by May Dodd, the white woman who marries Little Wolf, this is the story of her acclimation (and difficulties with acclimating) to the Cheyenne way of life. This is a very candid telling; May tells us the good and the bad and seems to not hold much back. It is a very detailed look at a culture and culture shock.