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Search tags: YA-historical-fiction
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review 2018-07-23 13:54
Blood and Ink
Blood and Ink - D.K. Marley

Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were both young men who grew up under the reign of Elizabeth I.  Christopher or Kit was guided by the muse Calliope to have an ingenious wit and create wonderful works of written word.  When still very young, Kit's talent was noticed by Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster.  Kit was whisked away from his family in return for schooling.  However, Kit was really being groomed as a spy for Elizabeth herself.  Kit's dream is to be a famous playwright and have his name immortalized.  For this, Kit is willing to do Walsingham's bidding as he works his way into the Queen's favor.  Meanwhile, Will Shakespeare dreams of being an actor on stage.  Will's family still practices the old religion, placing them in danger time and time again. This also unknowingly places Will within Kit's path as a spy for Walsingham.  As the men age, their paths cross again.  When Kit needs to escape for a time, Elizabeth hatches a plan so Kit may continue living, and his words may continue to grace the stage, but at what price?

Everyone knows the writings of William Shakespeare, but how many know the name and works of Christopher Marlowe?  I myself was not very familiar with Marlowe other than recognizing his name as a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Many believe that Marlowe did not truly die at such a young age and the William Shakespeare was simply passing along his works.  DK Marley presents the mystery of the two men from their youth through their deaths in an intriguing alternate narration between the two.  Writing in the voices of two acclaimed writers is no easy task, however the dialogue and narration seemed effortless and accurate for William and Kit at the time.  I loved the device of Calliope as a muse for Kit and a guiding voice; it seems that she might have even more to say.  I also enjoyed learning about Walsingham's spy ring and Elizabeth's relationships with Marlowe and Shakespeare.  Overall, a wonderful and atmospheric historical intrigue for anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, Marlowe or Tudor history.

‚ÄčThis book was received for free in return for an honest review. 

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review 2018-07-22 17:34
The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila
The Ultimate Tragedy - Jethro Soutar,Abdulai Sila

In 2017, this book apparently became the first novel (though more of a novella really, clocking in around 180 pages) from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It doesn’t do too well in the storytelling department, and despite being first published in 1995 it is a simplistic criticism of Portuguese colonialism (Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1973-1974), so I can see why there wasn’t a rush to translate. But of course there’s something to be said for reading voices from a particular place even if their literary merits are weak.

There will be SPOILERS below, though no more than are found in the book description (which gives away most of the story).

The book begins with a teenage girl, Ndani, traveling from her village to the capital city, Bissau, with hopes of becoming a domestic servant in a Portuguese home. After a few chapters, it skips abruptly to a village chief, smarting over an insult from a colonial official and thinking at great, repetitive length about the paramount importance of thinking. The stories come together when the chief marries Ndani (who has somehow learned to be a great lady by being a housegirl, yet is somehow the only such woman available even though the earlier chapters show that there are plenty of housegirls, and Ndani is not the brightest bulb on the tree). Then she falls in love with a local teacher, a young man trained by priests but questioning the righteousness of colonial rule. Tragedy, naturally, ensues.

The story is kind of a mess, unfortunately. It skips long periods of time without giving any sense of what Ndani’s life was like in the interim, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. Ndani’s abrupt shift from housegirl to fancy lady is not particularly convincing, nor did I find her cheerful willingness to jump right into sex believable from a woman whose only sexual experiences were rape. There’s a prophecy about Ndani that causes people to shun her, until they don’t, with no reason I could see for the change of heart other than that this plot device was no longer needed. Being in the chief’s head is tedious due to the long-winded repetition, and the teacher’s realization that the reality of colonial rule is inconsistent with Christian principles is painfully obvious; decades after colonial rule ended, I doubt this was a new idea to the book’s readers.

The translation is fairly smooth, but a number of words and concepts are left untranslated, and these are not always immediately obvious from context; most of these words appear to be from a local African language and were probably untranslated in the Portuguese original too, but a glossary would help foreign readers understand the references to local culture better.

Ultimately, this is a fairly quick and easy read, but the simplistic political commentary dominates over the story; I missed more of Ndani’s life than I saw, never got to know who she was as a person, and had no particular reason to care about her or anyone else in the story (her mistress was perhaps the most interesting character to me - a Portuguese woman who, after a near-death experience, devotes herself to "improving the natives" - but this character doesn't have the space to fully develop). I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are specifically looking to read a book from Guinea-Bissau. If you are, this is a readable option.

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review 2018-07-22 16:54
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

 

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

 

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

 

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

 

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth...no matter where it leads.

 

 

I have probably mentioned this before, but I love WWI and WWII books that focus primarily on women's experiences during the war. I also have a weakness for dual timeline books. The Alice Network really worked for me. 

 

I will say that the 1947 timeline wasn't nearly as compelling as the 1915 timeline - Eve's experiences in occupied France gathering intelligence were gritty, realistic and heart-stoppingly dangerous. The 1947 timeline often felt like an annoying diversion that ground the true narrative to a halt.

 

Charlotte, or Charlie, the POV character in the 1947 timeline didn't 100% read like a young woman from 1947. She used expressions that felt modern, and, more importantly, I'm not sure that Quinn completely sold her behavior given the societal mores of 1947. But, I did enjoy the Thelma and Louise-esque adventures of Charlie, Eve and Finn, Eve's driver/Charlies taciturn Scottish love interest.

 

As is typically the case in this type of novel, the two timelines eventually merge to answer many of the questions that have been left unanswered for decades. It is a bit overly reliant on coincidence and the seeming ubiquitous invulnerability of one of the primary villains, but overall, I devoured this book and was sorry to see it end!

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review 2018-07-21 20:38
Boystown 6
Boystown 6: From the Ashes - Marshall Thornton

We were quiet a long time and then he said, “I love you.” 
I wondered if I’d misunderstood him. The discomfort of the idea must have shown on my face because he added, “I don’t mean I love you that way. Not like I love Ross. Not like you love Harker. I mean, I care about you, Nick. You’re my friend. With all the things that are happening in the world, shouldn’t it be okay? Just to say I love you?”
“Yes, it should be okay.”
And it was.

 

Some great new characters and relationships here. But damn the heart. 

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review 2018-07-21 14:36
Experimental, challenging, touching and funny at times but not a crowd-pleaser.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I thank NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

First, in case you have not read the book or anything about it, and wonder what the bardo of the title refers to, it is a Buddhist concept (in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems, and I’ve read that Saunders is a Buddhist) referring to an intermediate state between death and rebirth (between two lives on Earth).

Now that we’ve cleared that out, if you follow my blog, you might remember that I reviewed some of the books that had made the long and the short-list of the Booker Prize. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but I had not read the book that actually won the Prize, and when I saw it come up on NetGalley, I could not resist. I had heard and read a great deal about it, and I felt I had to check it for myself.

This is not a standard novel. It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid fever. Other chapters, also fragmented, contain first-person observations by a large variety of characters that ‘live’ at the cemetery where Willie is laid to rest. Call them ghosts, spirits, or whatever you prefer, they seem to have been there for a while, some longer than others, and they interact with each other, while at the same time talking about themselves and taking a keen interested on little Willie Lincoln and his father. We have the spirits of black and white characters, young and old, men and women, well-off citizens and paupers, people who had lead seemingly morally exemplary lives and others who had gone down the wrong path, some who had taken their own lives, others who had died by accident or in bed. There are some actively atoning for their sins while others only seek entertainment. They are a motley crew, and although we hear mostly from three of these characters (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas) and from Willie, they all make important contributions and help create a whole that is more than its parts.

The structure of the novel is puzzling and intriguing, and although it made me think of postmodernism and pastiche, the methodology used to construct the novel is not an attempt at emptying it of meaning or making us reflect upon the artificiality and futility of seeking truth and understanding. The death of a child (even if we are not parents, most of us are close enough to the children of relatives and/or friends to be able to imagine what it must be like) is a terrible tragedy and although there are light moments in the novel, there are touching and moving ones as well. Some of the fragments emphasise the diverse opinions and judgements about Lincoln and his presidency (by the way, although some of these fragments are real documents from the period, others have been created by Saunders, and it is not evident while reading which ones are which), but everybody agrees on the devastating effect the death of his son had over the president. The hopeful ending might feel somewhat surprising but is open to interpretation, like the rest of the text.

There are fragments that will make readers wonder about religious beliefs, others that question the social order, racial ideas, and the Civil War. But I fully understand the puzzlement of many readers who leave negative reviews on this book (and the negative reviews are many) stating that they don’t understand anything, it goes over their heads, and it is not really a novel. Some readers, familiar with Saunders’s short-stories, prefer those to the novel, but as I have not read them, I cannot comment.

Here some examples of the style of writing in the book (in this case, I definitely recommend prospective readers to check inside or get a sample to see if it suits their reading taste).

…only imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

The money flows out, tens of thousands of men wait, are rearranged to no purpose, march pointlessly over expensive bridges thrown up for the occasion, march back across the same bridges, which are then torn down. And nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.

The book collects a large number of endorsements and reviews at the end, and I’ve chosen this one by James Marriott, from The Times, for its briefness and accuracy: ‘The book is as weird as it sounds, but it’s also pretty darn good.’

In sum, this is a highly experimental book, for readers who enjoy a challenge and don’t mind a non-linear narrative, who enjoy literary fiction not focused on plot, and are intrigued by new writers and what makes critics tic. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one and I, for one, hope to catch up on some of the author's previous books.

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