Tag Archives: historical fiction

Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the SeaLittle Margaret has never known another home besides the island, and she has never known another mother than the nuns in the convent. A great ship visits them every spring and fall with provisions from the mainland of Albion; otherwise, they work to provide for themselves between times of prayer. Such is the peaceful rhythm of their days.

One day, a ship arrives at the island off schedule. William, a boy about her own age, becomes her friend and playmate. Margaret realizes that William is unhappy and wants to go back to Albion, but he can’t, because his father is in trouble. It is William who lets Margaret know about the political upheaval on the mainland, and it seems that his family is on the wrong side of power at the time. Years later, William has been taken back to Albion, and another ship has come with an imperious young woman, Eleanor, who is in the keeping of the Reverend Mother, who has authority over all of the obedient sisters of the Elysian order on the island. When she overhears a conversation with the Reverend Mother, Margaret learns who her parents are and what grave danger she is in.

Dylan Meconis explores themes of freedom, knowledge, and power in this luminous graphic novel based on the exile of Elizabeth I under the reign of her sister, Mary. Margaret is happy on the island until William is taken to prison in Albion, and she is content to live out her future in the convent until she finds out her true identity, and then she is conflicted over whether or not it is her duty to use her power for good.

This is a large volume with ivory-colored pages recalling medieval parchments. Most of the illustrations are done in rich colors and realistic style, but the style changes with the content. When someone is telling Margaret a story, the illustrations look like a child’s drawings, and when a character is reading from a document, the font becomes Gothic calligraphy and resembles a manuscript. Margaret loves needlework, and the illustrations of her embroidery may be photographs. This graphic novel contains more text than most, and the reader will learn a great deal about the ordinary work of the late middle ages, as well as the inner workings of a religious order. The story is beautiful and compelling, but taken as a complete package, Queen of the Sea offers an experience beyond simple prose.

Graphic novels are not usually my first choice of format, but as a lover of art and history, I can highly recommend Queen of the Sea.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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American Princess, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

American PrincessAll she wanted was her father’s approval, but when Theodore Roosevelt looked at his daughter, Alice, all he saw was his beloved wife who had died giving her birth. Alice loved her stepmother, but Edith had a brood of younger children taking up her time, so Alice lived her life finding ways to get attention.

Of course, she had had a good education, especially for a woman, so her father endeavored to use her popularity with the press to his advantage. He sent her on photogenic foreign trips and made sure that she repeated all the approved party lines to the press. She was charming and witty, but journalists are always sniffing for a whiff of scandal. Alice’s friends were not the most virtuous ingénues in Washington, unlike her boring cousin Eleanor, and she loved living on the edge. Her parents read the society pages each morning with trepidation. Alice carried on so scandalously with Nick Longworth that it is a wonder that she didn’t find herself with child before they finally married. After many years of marriage, however, she decided that she was unable to conceive a child, only to find out during her affair with Senator Borah at age 40 that, surprisingly, that was not the case.

The first part of Thornton’s novel reads like a historical romance, and I admit that I was disappointed. As Alice grows older, however, the story becomes more serious, as well. Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was born in tragedy, and her long life was punctuated with sorrow. She was witness to— and often in the center of— great historical events, including the turn of the 20th century, two world wars, and the first moon landing. She held salons filled with the movers and shakers of government, and she traveled all over the world. She outlived almost everyone she knew, and she knew almost everyone. Her later years found her meeting Queen Elizabeth when she was just a sweet young thing of 50 and Jacqueline Kennedy just after she became Jacqueline Onassis. She never lost her wit or her spunk before she died at the age of ninety-six.

This enjoyable novel is perfect for students of twentieth-century history, admirers of the heroic lives of great women, and anyone who enjoys a ripping story filled with far too much action to fit into one life—except that it did.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

** This is the cover of the galley that I read; however, the cover will be updated before publication on March 12th.

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The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book of BoyBoy is out climbing an apple tree, talking with the goats, when the pilgrim buys him from his master and takes him on a voyage to Rome. Along the way, they need to “rescue” seven relics in various cities. Boy is forced to wear the pack of stolen goods because they burn the pilgrim’s hands, but he doesn’t mind, since it hides the hump on his back. He is not happy about stealing, but the pilgrim always seems to have an alternate explanation that soothes Boy’s conscience. He suspects that the pilgrim is not who he appears to be, but then, neither is Boy.

This fascinating and mysterious trek through the landscape and religion of the Middle Ages unlocks pieces of a puzzle while wrestling with questions of appearance and reality. Villages are dirty and devastated by plague, but there are still poor people willing to share their last meals. The institutional church could be riddled with vice and deceit, but there are still believing priests who are kind and loving. The grasping and powerful may confuse and abuse Boy, but he manages to maintain his innocent goodness.

Who doesn’t love an adventurous road trip? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories. There is usually a main character and a sidekick, but in this case, the main character is the sidekick. A quest, a series of interesting settings and characters, dangers, mishaps and rescues, and all the while the interior journey as our hero learns along the way. Boy is a joyful and glorious creation.

Very highly recommended for upper elementary through middle school, The Book of Boy would also make an exciting family read-aloud. Some historical and theological explanations may be necessary for younger children.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

passion-of-dolssaThree sisters grow up without a mother however they can. Eventually, they settle into a town in southern France and open a tavern together. The oldest brews the ale, the youngest tells fortunes, and the middle sister, Botille, is a matchmaker. When their elderly neighbor sends Botille on a journey to bring back her nephews, they meet a dying girl in the woods on their return trip. Dolssa is being pursued by a devout friar who is bent on purging the church of all heretics like her, those who think that they can speak to God themselves, without the intervention of a priest. By taking her in, the sisters are putting themselves and their entire village in mortal danger.

Books with a medieval setting are usually fantasies, it seems. However, this is a novel based squarely on history, and disputed history at that, which makes it even more intriguing. Julie Berry, author of the riveting All the Truth That’s in Me, begins by stating that history is written by the winners, but every so often, the underdog leaves enough evidence that we can begin to piece together the truth. In 13th century southern France, the Catholic Church allied with the king of France in the first Crusade in which Christians sought to kill other Christians. It was called the Albigensian Crusade, and the heretics were later called Cathars. However, Berry recently studied manuscripts that show that the Cathars are a construct created by historians, a mythical synthesis of several groups of believers who threatened the power of the institutional church. Men and women like Dolssa, however, were just devout believers who lived simple lives and ministered to the people in their communities. Following Berry’s hypothesis, however, means that ordinary men and women were also working miracles in Jesus’ name in 1209 in southern France. Let the reader decide.

When I began this beautiful tale, I had the luxury of calling my brother, a medieval scholar, and getting a quick, off-the-cuff summary of the history of southern France from 1209 to 1410. However, the book was written for teens and can be read as a compelling, transcendent story of the effect that one pure, extraordinary life can have on everyone she touches. Berry includes copious back matter: notes, glossaries, and bibliographies. The characters are perfectly relatable for twenty-first century readers, and the terrifying realization that a human being can be convinced—out of fear or love of money—to abandon a friend or neighbor to an unjust death is a truth that we see repeated over and over throughout history.

I loved this book. That’s the best recommendation I can give. There are so many things to think about and discuss in its pages, but most of all, it was just a great story. Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, but I handed out several of the library copies to other people, whether they asked for it or not. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens“Oh, I must have some of the witch’s rampion, or I shall surely die.” And so, compelled by an overwhelming pregnancy craving, Rapunzel’s mother launched an evil pact: a baby girl in exchange for some bitter greens.

Author Kate Forsyth researched all of the Rapunzel stories told down through the centuries and re-imagined them in three women’s stories spanning the seventeenth century, folded into one another over and over. As the novel begins, we see the writer and socialite Charlotte-Rose de la Force in despair as she is forced to join a convent after being banished from the sparkling court of King Louis XIV in 1690. She refuses to believe that she will be there long, but as the dreary days go by she is befriended by one of the older nuns who enlists her help in the garden and spins tales of a young girl a century ago who was locked up in a tower by an evil witch who climbs into the tower using the girl’s long hair. These three stories of Charlotte Rose, the witch herself, and the girl in the tower are told alternately throughout this spellbinding novel. Tucked in between the chapters are snippets of the classic Rapunzel story as told by many authors over the years. The three stories come together startlingly, yet perfectly, at the end.

Historical fiction and retold fairy tales are two of my favorite genres, and Bitter Greens was a skilled example of both. Sensitive readers should take note that the author often states that there were three paths available to women in the seventeenth century: wife, nun, or prostitute (and I cleaned that up a bit). There is one particularly gruesome scene, but also a pervasive understanding of sex as a way to achieve goals, whether it is just food and shelter or social climbing. There are also beautiful romances, of course. Forsyth has penned an absorbing tale that will make twenty-first century women appreciate their freedom to follow their dreams while reveling in the eternal beauty of true love. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed as solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

ImageThere are probably very few of us who have never thought, “If only I could go back and change that one decision I made, my life would be so much better.” Perhaps it was something that happened to you or to someone you love, or maybe one choice that you would make differently now, if you only had the chance. But what if that one change in your life would cause you to miss out on many good things that happened later? Or what if the other choice led to tragedy instead?

It is not a spoiler for me to tell you that on the second page of Life After Life, Ursula walks into a café and shoots der Führer, for which she is immediately killed by his guards. A couple of pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies. A few pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, and is sleeping peacefully in her cradle while her mother munches on toast and sips tea. Confused yet?

It may be an oversimplification to call this “quantum physics meets historical fiction,” but that is probably the best way to describe this amazing new book by Kate Atkinson. Ursula lives through the first and second world wars, at least in some of her lives. She is always born into the same family on the same day, but a few key events may or may not take place each time, and each change brings a different outcome. Interestingly, all of the characters have the same basic personality and nature, even though their lives are transformed in many details. Ursula receives support from her wonderfully crazy Aunt Izzie, the black sheep of the family, and a very quirky psychiatrist who helps her to deal with the déjà vu and terrible premonitions that she begins to experience. Although reincarnation and Buddhism are mentioned here and there, I am not aware of any Buddhist teaching that allows people to relive the same life over and over in order to correct their mistakes.

Please don’t think that this novel, at 527 pages, would get monotonous. Quite the contrary! Atkinson does not bring us all the way back to Ursula’s birth every single time. Sometimes, she just replays certain key portions of her life, and sometimes she skips backward and forward in time. The reader is eager to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see where the changes were made and to find out what will happen to our beloved heroine this time. Ursula doesn’t meander through time forever, either. The ending is very purposeful and satisfying.

If you’re looking for something entirely new that feels warm and familiar, you will love this intimate exploration of one ordinary woman’s life in extraordinary times.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader’s copy of this book, lent to me by a librarian friend. My opinions are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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