Tag Archives: historical fiction

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.

When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.

Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.

I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.

There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.

Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.

While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for proving an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Savannah or A Gift for Lincoln by John Jakes

If you are looking for one of John Jakes sweeping sagas, then Savannah is not the book for you. This quaint little (by Jakes’ standards) Christmas story, if you can call any book set during Sherman’s March to the Sea “quaint”, Is a somewhat quiet interlude lasting from the newly established Thanksgiving, 1964, through a couple of weeks into the new year. Yes, there is looting and destruction by both Yankees and Rebs, but Savannah plays the perfect host, welcoming their enemies hoping to avoid the burning experienced by the neighboring city of Atlanta. Here we meet General William T Sherman, an unusual type of soldier, slovenly in appearance but determined to end this war once and for all.

Yet, Sherman is not the main event. This is the story of twelve year old Harriet and her widowed mother, Sara Lester, who are forced to leave behind their rice farm and move into Savannah when the fields are flooded by the rebs to help slow the advance of Sherman’s army. Moving in with her best friend, Mrs Vastley Rohrschamp (who both fears and secretly welcomes the idea of being somehow defiled by the enemy), the three women try to get by as best they can in times of uncertainty and poverty. Hattie, a headstrong, reckless young lady, is the main focus as she wages her own battle against the Yankees, even going so far as to kick General Sherman in the shins. His reaction surprises her, and afterwards she feels comfortable enough to ask him for assistance when the need arises. Still, Hattie admits they can never be friends since her heart belongs to Dixie and she cannot forgive the deaths of her father and others who were killed in the war.

There’s some violence, some love, some evil doers, and some kindhearted gentlemen looking out for the three companions. As I said, a sweet little wartime Christmas story.
This one was perfect for listening, with an abridged audiobook read by Dylan Baker.

Oh, and the subtitle “A Gift for Lincoln” refers to the telegram Sherman wired to President Lincoln on December 22nd with the message, “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Three stars.

The Art Forger by B A Shapiro

Claire Roth is beautiful, talented, and cursed. Even when she tries to do the right thing, it somehow turns out all wrong. Take Isaac Cullion, all she wanted to do was nudge him out of his funk and help him get his painting done in time for the art opening and look how that turned out? Now here’s Aiden Markell, offering her the chance of a lifetime. All she has to do is paint a duplicate of Edgar Degas’ After the Bath. Who better than Claire, a certified Repro painter specializing in his works? Yet this time her reproduction is more than just a copy, it’s a forgery of a painting which was stolen during the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Or is it? Despite the thrill of having an original Degas in her studio apartment, something isn’t quite right. Nagging doubts cloud Claire’s mind, notwithstanding the mind blowing sex with her new lover or the promise of her own art show at his gallery. Since there’s no one she can comfortably confide in, Claire starts doing her own investigation to uncover some truths which have been kept a secret for over a hundred years.

Barbara A Shapiro once again uses her knowledge of the Art World plus the mystique of Boston to bring us a novel of art and intrigue in The Art Forger. Developing a fascination with Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1983 which was reinforced after the infamous unresolved heist at the famous Boston museum, Shapiro waited until she found a way to combine past historical events with fictional characters to create a cohesive tale of love and betrayal. Weaving truth and fiction, she fabricates a series of letters written by Gardner to her “niece” describing her titilating encounters with the famed Degas in her attempts to buy one of his paintings for the museum she is determined to build. He agrees, but there are stipulations which might not be acceptable to her high brow society peers, despite her already outrageous behaviors. Although there is no written record of these meetings and no true correspondence to relate, the author still frames a plausible background to her modern day tale.

While Shapiro’s descriptions of the history and techniques of various art forgeries over the years is interesting, at times the details of this and other artistic techniques are perhaps a bit too technical for the average reader. In addition I would have liked a bit more depth of character for Claire and her associates to go along with the richly developed Boston setting. Besides the old time letters and narrative about Claire’s current life, there are also flashbacks from three years prior to the start of this story involving her relationship with Isaac, explaining her pariah status. I liked how the reader is given clues utilizing the three scenarios to help decipher the outcome, although for me, at least, there were no surprises, just reasonable expectations. In the end, Claire was a bit too self righteous and not entirely innocent, plus she made a lousy girlfriend – still from notoriety comes fame (see the Kardasians).

The Art Forger has been on my to read list since last year when I read Shapiro’s book The Muralist and it didn’t disappoint with a plot richly layered just like the paintings Claire designed. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher

How to describe Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher! Tall Tale? Coming of Age? Historical Fiction? Magical Realism? Or just a young man’s fantastical reminisces of participating in an historic event with his father and uncle one fateful weekend in the promised spring with one last snow fall – “the snow that brings the snow”.

No one dies in the Bon Homme (Goodman) family, they simply disappear. William, also known as Quebec Bill, leaves his family and travels the country and when he returns they are just gone. He searches for years to no avail until he finds himself a wife and starts his own family not far from where his nomadic family once lived, next door to his Aunt Cordelia, the only blood relative left in sight.

Despite being desperately poor, William, an optimist, sees the good in everything, giving everybody the benefit of the doubt with a rollicking sense of humor and a search for fun. Armed with his fiddle, he mesmerizes everyone in the Vermont town, enjoying their company. William collects misfits, both animals and people, generously inviting them into his home. He truly loves his wife, rescuing her from a Montreal Convent where she eventually returns.

Circumstances during the depression have left him penniless, necessitating a whisky run to earn enough cash in Prohibition America to feed his wife’s prized cows. Bringing along his son – Wild Bill, his brother in law – Uncle Henry, and Rat – one of the misfits with a talent for farming, their hijinks up along the coast between Vermont and Canada are the stuff of legends including the antagonist, Carcajou (Indian for wolverine), who keeps showing up at inopportune times, despite their concerted attempts to kill him dead.

Each new escapade beats out the last, as they wreck havoc along the way from the destruction of Uncle Henry’s cherished car to the sinking of a railroad locomotive to the crashing of a small plane, with numerous exploits in between. The wild behaviors continue throughout the novel leaving the reader confused and unable to predict what could possibly happen next.

Don’t look for sanity, just hang on to your hat and enjoy the ride. Perhaps this tale is simply an exaggeration found in the mind of a young boy who idolized his dad or maybe it’s a matter of symbolism where the evil Carcajou is the conscience which William seems to lack. There’s even a rumbling that the plot reflects the trauma which comes at the end of childhood.

Bits and pieces of various shenanigans are exposed consisting of past and future events including some marked similarities between Great Grandfather Rene and Henry, Wild Bill’s son. Henry has the touch of absurd, talking to the “shadow” of Aunt Cordelia, trying to raise a Saber Tooth Tiger, and eventually defecting to Canada when his number gets called for the draft to Viet Nam. In this way he, too, disappears from Wild Bill’s life, just as the rest of the family moves on, both literally and figuratively. Remember, don’t think too deeply, just enjoy.

A beautifully written regional novel which helps the reader visualize the New England countryside, this is just one of many books by this author about the residents of Kingdom County, a place of wonders or, as Aunt Cordelia might say, where one discovers the extraordinary from the ordinary. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Here are two totally different women, one about 90 years of age and another a junior in high school, yet they unknowingly are kindred spirits due to a common difficult childhood.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline focuses on the practice of “adoption” via a train ride from the East throughout the Midwest where families could choose an orphan child to take home. These new “family members” were often selected to be servants or unpaid hired hands to help on the farm. While this entire concept seems unbelievable by today’s standards, this practice began in 1854 and continued as late as 1929. Documented over the years, many survivors or their families maintain a blog or communicate with each other over the Internet. While some placements were fortuitous, too many created unbelievable hardships which these orphans had to endure.

The main focus of The Orphan Train is on Niamh aka Dorothy aka Vivian whose family is put on a boat leaving Ireland in the hopes of finding prosperity in New York City. Unfortunately, her father still drinks and her bitter, jaded mother is pregnant again, so their existence in the crowded flat is less than ideal. Yet Niamh feels lost when her family literally goes up in smoke and she finds herself a ward of the Children’s Aid Society on the Orphan Train going west to find a family willing to take a chance on a red headed Irish girl of nine or ten. The only thing she has from her past is the cross her Irish grandmother bestowed upon her before giving them all the boot. Despite being used to hardship, her new life is one of servitude in Minnesota, first to a seamstress, then to a large family of wild children, before she runs away from a situation which could only worsen if she stayed. That she survives the ordeal is miraculous, but through a series of happenstances, Niamh finds herself a comfortable life although not free from heartache.

Then there is Molly Ayer who also has a keepsake necklace, hers consisting of three charms on a chain which her Penobscot Indian father gave her just prior to his accidental death. Her mother, due to her own issues, is unable to care for her daughter and thus Molly ends up in the foster care system, for all practical purposes an orphan. A difficult teen who gets in trouble for minor infractions purposely rebelling with her piercings and goth appearance, she finds herself doing community service at Vivian Daly’s home, helping the old woman clean out her attic. At first the whole task is a chore, especially since the boxes full of artifacts containing memories from a prior era are simply unpacked, examined, and reboxed. Yet each item has a story and in just a short bit of time, the bitter Molly discovers that she is not the only one with a tragic youth. As part of a school assignment, Molly records Vivian’s tale and the story unfolds along with the items in the attic as the book moves seamlessly from past to present and back again. Through the telling, a relationship develops which soothes them both and makes for a satisfying reading experience, despite the quick wrap up and open ended conclusion.

While I did have a copy of the book for reference (I especially appreciated the photographs and list of resources), I actually listened to the majority of the story on tape (CD) performed by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren. I felt the Scottish accent of the young Niamh, which disappeared over time, added a dimension to the tale which my imagination couldn’t provide with simply reading the written words.

Although Kline used some exaggerated stereotypes to forward the plot, the emphasis (and obvious research) on the historically accurate Orphan Train and its effects on the lives of children such as Niamh was a riveting subject. Four stars.

Escape From Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth

Welcome to the Village of Arnn, a rural area not too far from NYC where time and legend seem to stand still. Honoria can’t help noticing the differences between her new classmates and her old way of life in the city, a life which was destroyed along with her parents when the Twin Towers collapsed. She imagines her current situation reflected in an imaginary fashion magazine showcasing her new friends’ rustic style vs her old preppie ways at the private school she used to attend. Without her faimiliar school uniform she wonders how to fit into this new environment. When the opportunity comes to visit the supposedly haunted Witchwood Hollow, taunted by her two new buddies, she disappears into the foliage at once feeling comforted yet panicky until she finds her way home. The woods seem to call to her with enticement despite her inherent fear.

Jordan Elizabeth Mierek, the author of Escape From Witchwood Hollow sets up this haunted tale starting in the 1650s when Lady Clifford is eluding capture and certain death for killing her neighbor. Unremorseful, she builds a life for herself in the woods with her magic, determined to trap unsuspecting visitors to provide new provisions and perhaps keep her company. In this way she finds a phusband who eventually deserts her so their child can have a more normal upbringing in the village. Two hundred years later, Albertine Slack has the opportunity to come to the states from her native England to live with her relocated father and marry the neighboring farmer’s son. Eager to join her dad, she attempts to walk to the farm only a mile from the village, but the woods beckon and she becomes entrapped, unable to find a way out. Eventually she meets up with others in a similar situation and, despite their varying backgrounds from different eras, they form a family. Somehow Mierek intertwines the centuries and characters into a cohesive whole as the details of the Witchwood Hollow folklore are revealed.

First off, Mierek is an promising storyteller with a vivid imagination and a pleasant writing style which keeps the reader engaged. Escape from Witchwood Hollow has a touch of Dahl, a pinch of Irving, and some aspects of Lost Horizon’s Shangri La. The lyrics to Hotel California kept playing through my head – “You can check in any time you’d like, but you can never leave.” That being said, I felt this book was an excellent first draft, but at 179 pages there were an additional 50 to 100 pages available to flesh out the plot and turn an engaging tale into one which was truly gripping. While the main character was well defined, I felt the supporting cast could have been better developed to provide plausible motivations for their behaviors. Even the witch was sketchy, with details of her past dropped incidentally throughout the story. Besides Honoria, Allison was the other unambiguous character who provided a engrossing glimpse into the legend. With a little more plot and background information, some of the questionable events would have made more sense. I also found the surprise ending kind of abrupt as if the author thought “That’s all I have to say, let’s wrap this up.” While I wasn’t crazy about the culminating events, I did understand why the author went in that direction and it definitely fit the tone of a paranormal story meant for high school and young adult audiences.

Excellent effort and I look forward to future books which, I am sure, will be honed to fascinating perfection.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to the author for providing an ARC of her book in exchange for an honest review. This post also appears on Goodreads.

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Perhaps it comes with the territory. Why do authors who write a fictionalized version of a famous individual feel the need to write what is in essence a biography. Yes, the research is incredible. The person who they describe is extraordinary. The resulting novel falls short.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg. Who wouldn’t be drawn to a story detailing the life of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin aka George Sand. She is one of the great heroines of literature, a largcer than life presence whose writings have stood the test of time. Berg follows the life of Aurore (1804-1876) from birth to death, detailing every aspect of her life.

This novel reads like a detailed diary/memoir/autobiography told from Sand’s point of view. From Berg’s narrative it is deduced that George was a spoiled prima donna subject to fits of mania and depression or highs and lows. Perhaps she was ADHD as she flit from one relationship to another. Once she got bored with one lover she moved on to the next. Her attitude tended to be – here I am now entertain me. She was over opinionated to the point of being rude. Her writing talent and success in a male dominated world did not always endear her to others. Jealousy was a constant issue. All of the above led to the emasculation of more than one lover. The author tries to paint a picture of Sand’s adult behaviors being caused by a traumatic childhood, but even at a young age, Aurore was a handful (as witnessed by her grandmother sending her to a convent during her rebellious teens). I’m sure the servants didn’t reprimand her out of malice (perhaps it was out of spite for her implied atrocious behaviors). Her children were treated like toys to be picked up and played with when convenient. To say George was self centered and egotistical would be a gross understatement. She personified those terms. Yet she had an enormous capacity to be loving and generous, willing to make sacrifices for those she held dear. Her life was filled with drama and excitement at a time when women knew their place and stayed behind caring for hearth and home. So while there was much to criticize about George’s behaviors, there was also a lot to admire. The same rebelliousness which drove society to distraction, mesmerized the artistic community. By sporting men’s clothing in public, Sand was able to circulate more freely in 1830’s Paris, giving her access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of her social standing. She loved to scandalize and took up smoking tobacco in public, another taboo. Her numerous affairs and relationships with those in the art world were legendary, as well as her influence on the great masters of the times – Chopin, Musset, Flaubert, Liszt, Hugo, Balzac, Delacroix. This creates an amazing backdrop to The Dream Lover, a story of a life full of zest and liveliness as well as sorrow and angst, as Aurore searches for true love. One of the most well known quotes of George Sand is: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” I would surmise that this is the theme of this novel.

So how could Elizabeth Berg make George Sand’s amazing life seem almost mundane? I thought it ironic that she turned to Nancy Horan for advice. I had recently read Horan’s Under a Wide and Starry Night about the romantic relationship between Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. But Horan, like Berg, took much of the excitement out of the adventure. Is it the fact they insisted on a factual accounting of the life and times? That they felt compelled to give us every detail, no matter how minute. Better to have skipped over some of the day to day details. These aren’t diaries, they are romantic novels. Take some liberties. Focus on the dramatic events.

While Berg used a unique style, with the chapters switching back and forth between time frames, it was at times like experiencing déjà vu. I felt like I was reading random selections throughout the novel starting at pages towards the end then flipping to the beginning. An interesting concept which got confusing as past and future finally coincided.

Despite my criticisms, this was an incredible achievement – covering the life and death of George Sand. This book obviously reflected a tremendous amount of research and I loved the inclusion of the numerous quotes from Sand’s publications and correspondence. Perhaps I am a little greedy. I wanted more. I wanted more descriptions of the Parisian culture. I wanted more about the colorful characters who dominated the world of literature back then and even today. Not just name dropping, but an immersion into those fascinating days.

The hammer was swung, the bell was not rung. No oversized stuffed animal for the lady. Better luck next time.

I give this book three stars. I am grateful to Random House and Netgalley for allowing this free ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author for such a detailed accounting of this amazing woman’s life.