Title: Ross Poldark (Poldark Series Book #1)
Author: Winston Graham
Genre: Historical Fiction
In 1945 Graham Winston released the novel Ross Poldark, the first of what would later become a twelve volume saga of regarding the Poldark family.
The series was infinitely popular during its time, and went on to become a classic, taken to the screen by many, including my favorite: Masterpiece Theatre.
Graham’s work outside the Poldark series is even more extensive – his career as a novelist resulted in over forty titles being published in his lifetime.
I’ve run the fiction department of a bookstore for years. On and off since 2007, to be exact. I know the fiction/literature department of most bookstores like the back of my hand. Yet, I’ve never read any of Graham’s work until now – and I vaguely recall only seeing one of his books grace my fingertips ever. His books have never made a sizable appearance on the shelves where I work. Had we seen more copies of his work over the years, I certainly would have read his work by now as he’s right up my alley.
Poldark is for the Jane Austen and Bernard Cornwell lovers, a historical fiction piece too wonderful to ignore. Set in the late 1700’s (just a few decades after Outlander), Ross Poldark chronicles the return of the title’s namesake from America, where he’s fought in the revolution and been rumored dead. He arrives to find the woman he loves has not waited so patiently after all and is engaged to his cousin.
I love the full cast of this novel, and I assume the rest of the series. Not only does it follow the eventful lives of Ross and his cousins, Francis and Verity, the ex-lover Elizabeth, servants including a scullery maid Demelza, and an entire town of miners living on Poldark land. Graham does a little bit of third person head hopping, but never leaves you confused and maintains a streamlined storyline.
I am eager to read the second installment, Demelza, and am equally eager for the second season of the PBS series, Poldark.
Author: E. Michael Helms
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 265 pages
“I swallowed the last of my coffee, reached for the pot and poured another cup.”
Cup after coffee cup, I drank and read the second installment of E. Michael Helms Civil War series.
When life is hard, it’s nice to escape into another century’s problems. I suppose that’s the root of the issue when it comes to historical and science fiction lovers. We like to flee into other eras when humans are the same, but the world is so different.
My favorite tidbit about Helms series is that he was inspired by two elderly brothers he once knew as a boy, who had a Confederate veteran father. On his acknowledgements page he tells them, though they are long gone, that “It was your voices that gave rise to the voices of Daniel and Elijah Malburn.” As a fiction writer myself, those tiny details make my heart swoon, because so often we writers are asked where our ideas come from, and so often we are unable to precisely pinpoint it. Ideas sort of sprout and grow from nothing more than a vibe or a passing fancy, very rarely rooted in much of substance other than things our subconscious has gathered and created from nearly thin air. That Helms remembers these gentleman who told him stories as a boy is marvelous to my scattered mind.
This is a great piece of fiction to add to a high schooler’s American Civil War studies. The mind wraps itself around facts and truths of an era so much better when the facts are rooted in a riveting story. My favorite thing to do when I study any time in history is to read a biography or political piece side by side with a bit of fiction.
Well done, Helms! Looking forward to reading Deadly Catch, one of another series by Helms that I can’t wait to get my teeth into.
Title:Of Blood and Brothers
Author: E. Michael Helms
Publisher: Koehler Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 269 pages
“It was war, I said, and war makes people do bad things.”
Historical fiction that involves research and spans time within a story is always my favorite. Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, any of Kate Morton’s novels, A.S. Byatt’s Possession… these are among my must own forever books.
So, of course, I was pleased to discover E. Michael Helms’ Of Blood and Brothers series, which follows reporter Calvin Hogue (from 1927) as he researches the story of the Malburn Brothers (who fought in the Civil War).
As a child from the South, I adored Civil War tales. I didn’t care whether they were written from our perspective or the Yanks, I just couldn’t get enough of it. Gentle Annie and Red Badge of Courage were both beloved titles during my elementary school years. I played Colonel Shaw in the school play of Glory. Part of my obsession with Little Women was the mid-to-post war setting.
E. Michael Helms took me back in time to Elijah Malburn, and I got to experience being stolen from by the Confederates, being interrogated by the Union soldiers, and working at the saltworks. I traveled with Jefferson, the Malburn’s slave and found it oddly appropriate that the rift that doomed the brothers wasn’t just a political one, but one that included a girl.
I could easily turn this review into a political debate – there’s plenty to talk about, especially with me being from the south and having all sorts of views on the Confederacy. But that wouldn’t do Helms’ work justice.
Of Blood and Brothers is about people and homes being torn apart by circumstances outside of their control. It’s about being a soldier and not always being one because it’s what you believe in, but because it’s what saves your backside. It’s about protecting your loved ones and lamenting their departure from this world…
It’s a darn good book and I’m looking forward to the sequel.
Author: Par Lagerkvist
Genre: Fiction/ Literature
I’m pretty terrible about not investigating books before reading them, even more terrible about not investigating them before buying them (or bringing them home). Something moves me and immediately on impulse I add it to my collection. You never know when it might come in handy. It looks like it could be interesting on a rainy day in summer when I have no internet my daughter suddenly finds herself in a nap and my brain is somewhere between writing historical fiction and flying away in a space ship. Oh, and look, that possible moment in theoretical time happened this week.
So I picked up Barabbas, a short novel that had some vague ties to an author who had won the Nobel Prize for literature. A thin slip of a thing that might find itself in the donate pile if it didn’t prove itself worthy in an hour and a half.
It proved itself. Of course it did. The concept is too fascinating to not earn itself at least 4 stars in my very critical book.
Matthew 27: 11-26
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. 19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood;[a] see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged[b] Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Of course that’s a little factoid that almost every Christian knows. Many non-Christians probably know it too… Barabbas evil criminal let loose and poor Jesus killed.
I never thought about what that would mean. Not just in the grand scheme of things, but in the small ways that are epic to one and often meaningless to the masses. Barabbas – how did Barabbas feel? I never thought of it until Lagerkvist made me think about it. I picked up the book, understanding who the title referenced, but not imagining that it would be a historical piece on the person referenced – on his life, on his feelings, on his thoughts after Jesus took his place on the cross. Literally, not just in the spiritual salvation way, but physically died in his stead.
So many times we are encouraged to ruminate on Thomas (who doubted) and Peter (who denied). The thief who was admitted into paradise at the last minute, hanging on the cross next to Jesus, he’s a really big deal in the church. But Barabbas? Barabbas was just a bad dude who should have hung and died instead of our innocent savior… Really? What does that look like?
Lagerkvist tells us his version of what that looks like.
(If you’re not quite as oblivious as me, you probably already know this by the numerous film productions that have been done based on Lagerkvist’s work. You probably also know about the Marie Corelli book which inspired its own film versions. You probably know all sorts of cool things about Barabbas that I don’t. But if you don’t know anything about it all – keep reading and I’ll tell you what I think.)
This is a fascinating tale documenting the evolution of a person’s heart, the confusion of their mind as they try to sort out philosophical things in the midst of chaos and history being made. I’m startled by such a remarkable portrait.
It came out of left field. It’s been sitting on my shelf for God knows how long. And it was stunning.
It would seem that I am stunned by everything lately. The truth is, as much as I read and review here, there are four times as many books that I pick up and discard without even making it through the first chapter. (Those are either returned to the library because I borrowed them in the first place, or are delivered to the library because I am bewildered they made it across my threshold at all.)
The moral of this story: Lagerkvist is a keeper. There’s a reason he’s an award winning author. There’s a reason his book appears on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. He’s pretty incredible.
Title: A Reliable Wife
Author: Robert Goolrick
Publisher: Algonquin Paperbacks
Length: 291 pages
Like so many others, A Reliable Wife was a freebie I acquired somehow. A number one New York Times Bestseller that seemed to be everywhere at once, yet I didn’t know anyone who had actually read it.
When I was cleaning out my personal library to take donations to the public one, my hand was on it. It almost ended up in the bag. Something stopped me, I’m not sure what. Most likely a hoarder’s impulse. The copy was too pristine. The train on the cover too gloriously mysterious. Historical fiction written by a man, not a woman, which for some reason tends to make all the difference.
Maybe it was because of my post about my selection practices and my thoughts as to what titles concerning prostitution would be at my daughter’s fingertips. The book is highly inappropriate, but it gives a thorough view of what turns people to bad decisions. What makes someone become a person with poisonous intentions and morals.
How easily anyone could slip into this awfulness.
“Yet it was a dream he had held in his heart for so long that nothing could replace it, nothing made up for his loss and his desire for restitution.”
Who hasn’t suffered from the same sort of persistence chasing an idea that maybe should have been abandoned?
“This was wickedness, and it was fatal,” is the theme that runs through Goolrick’s riveting novel. Maybe it’s the Baptist fire and brimstone in my veins that makes a story like this appeal to me, because I don’t mind wickedness when it is properly portrayed as something evil. It’s when wickedness is disguised as something desirable that I have a problem with it in novels.
Goolrick’s novel is amazing. I couldn’t put it down and I was so glad I chose to read it instead of placing it my library donation bag this week. My husband, not much of a reader, now wants to know the story and read the book as well – suckered by the blurb on the back jacket as I was nose deep in the pages. I’ve already encouraged a friend to purchase it as well. She quickly found a copy in clearance at Half Price Books, well worth a spare dollar.
Author: John Oehler
Genre: Suspense, Historical Fiction
Length: 326 pages
I’ve wanted to read this book since the second I saw its cover. Mainly because John Oehler wrote it and I really enjoy his writing. I read and reviewed Aphrodesia awhile back and I swear I blushed for a month, so I knew Oehler’s writing was phenomenal. Add my obsession for all things Egyptian, and I was completely sold.
Many times this level of anticipation won’t work out well for a reader. There’s too much pressure on the book. How could it possibly live up?
Papyrus took my expectations in stride and out did itself.
Historical fiction all the way, there are still two different timelines – the ancient past (the 18th Dynasty of Egypt) and the not so ancient past (1977, during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopa). I enjoyed the banter and flirtation between these timelines and the story. It was woven together well and never missed a beat or left the reader feeling out of sorts with the rhythm of the tale.
In 1977, Oehler’s Rika Teferi is both a scholar and a warrior of Eritrea. This was an attribute so enticing for my black belt and book nerdy self that I spent two hours in a local Starbucks devouring this book instead of watching the Broncos beat the Patriots on Sunday. I loved her for her strength, her beauty, and ultimately for her intelligence.
Dive into ancient Egypt and Queen Tiye is completely riveting, especially since most my academic studies have focused on Hatshepsut and Nefertiti. It was refreshing to have Akhenaten’s mother be the focus, as I don’t think she is as common a fictional pursuit as other Eqyptian Queens. (The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Pauline Gedge’s The Twelfth Transforming – also stellar writing, but I was apparently so disappointed with the story it seems I have given that title away.) I do not own any nonfiction work devoted primarily to Tiye either, but Oehler’s version of her offered a pretty tempting reason to go find some.
As always Oehler handles the story arch with such grace and ease – I am jealous. He writes stories where things happen. Not just anything, but powerful and exciting things. Foreign countries, different times, bombs, planes, diplomats, ancient manuscripts, tombs, revolutionaries, romance…! His books are award winners with good reason and he is one of Houston’s best kept secrets. It is amazing to me that this was Oehler’s first novel.
Title:The Secret Keeper
Author: Kate Morton
Publisher: Atria Books
Genre: Fiction/ Historical Fiction
Length: 484 pages
I broke my Kate Morton rule. I read TWO Kate Morton novels in a 12 month period. And it was wonderful.
Forget my previously mentioned warnings to space out her books as long as it takes her to write them. This was a perfect winter read, she sucked me in – as always – and I found myself thinking it was her best piece since The Forgotten Garden. Don’t I say that every time?
I don’t just love Kate Morton as a reader, I find her inspiring as a writer. When everyone else is diving into NaNoWrMo – something I signed up for, but just really don’t get – I dive into Kate Morton and find that’s the push I need to get my own stories out of my head. (Same goes for Stephen King, that man really pushes my buttons and moves me to write.)
Semi side note: Is it just me or is NaNoWrMo distracting as all get out. I write 2k words a day on average – granted, not all usable, obviously – but every time I open an email for NaNoWrMo I find myself reading and sifting through a bunch of stuff and not getting ANY writing done at all. It’s fake motivation for me. It’s a complete and utter distraction. Like going to a pep rally. I’m more excited for a football game when I’m at the football game, but if you push me through the noise of a pep rally I just don’t feel like going anymore. SO counter productive.
You really want to be motivated to write? Read a good book. Read a really good book. Find someone who just moves you and you can’t help but think – I want to do that. Not exactly that, mind you, I want to write my own stuff. But I want to get a story out that moves people the way I’ve just been moved. Or excites people the way I’ve just been excited. The best motivation for a storyteller, I think, is to hear/read a good story.
Kate Morton’s stories are always good. No, not good, GREAT. She weaves through time with the skill of a T.A.R.D.I.S. and the hearts of a TimeLord. She is always a master of her chosen histories and reveals stories with an onion layer effect that always makes me giddy. The best moment of every one of her books is the, “I knew it!” moment. I love that she feeds you all the details but somehow leaves you thinking she might just surprise you – even though you don’t want to be surprised because you need to be right about this one detail that has dropped bread crumbs all over the story but hasn’t outright made itself obvious.
Even more than that, though, is Morton’s uncanny ability in every novel to write a character that feels so overly familiar to me. Or, if not familiar, someone I want to be familiar. The Secret Keeper had a lot of familiar faces from my real world.
Title: The Distant Hours
Author: Kate Morton
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Length: 562 pages
Kate Morton writes my favorite general fiction sub-genre. Did you grow up reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the Mysteries of Udolpho? Just before your reading level allowed the immersion into those worlds were you held captive by The Secret Garden, gothic ghost stories, and possibly some Anne Shirley who was a hopeless book-nerd and romantic? Kate Morton writes these tales, all grown up and contemporary. And they put me out of commission from line one until completion.
I have loved every story I’ve read by Morton. They are each one incredible and amazing, riveting and beautiful.
The Distant Hours was no different.
Except I figured it out far too soon.
I spread a lot of work out by authors to keep this from happening. I have a rule about Morton, that I must give at least a 12 month break between books (which works out well because she takes just the right amount of time to write them and makes this not only possible but necessary). This rule also keeps my husband sane, as I get completely lost in Morton and am completely gone from this world until her stories have ended; and even when they end, I have a nostalgic resignation that is hard to kick.
Morton’s layers are deep and onion-like, piece after piece of the puzzle is laid out for you over the course of the book. Always leading up to the moment when you are presented with the facts of the matter, revealed to you with a shudder of lovely understanding of everything all at once.
But I figured out The Distant Hours too soon, I think around the the two hundred page mark or so rather than the typical five hundred mark. Of course, I still had to read every word after my realization to be sure I was correct. I half expected her to shake me up a bit, and she tried! But in the end, I was right!
I still LOVED this book. It is highly recommended to any gothic loving book fiend, or even World War II reader… if you love castles, are a British bibliophile, or just plain love a good story about people. I recommend ALL Kate Morton books. If I could write half as well, I’d consider myself a success!
I just also had to note that this being the third book I’ve read by her, I felt like I figured her out. Still, looking forward to The Secret Keeper.
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Penguin Books
Length: 280 pages
When I first selected March for the HPB Humble Book Club, I wasn’t fully aware of what I was getting myself into. I knew two things: it had been on my TBR for quite sometime and it had been quite popular with private book clubs in the area. By the cover and Geraldine Brooks reputation, I assumed it was some kind of historical fiction and that it was most likely to be something I considered good. I had not yet discovered that it was the story of Mr.March while off at war and Marmee. I did not realize I’d be reading back story on characters I’ve loved my whole life.
Geraldine Brooks’ writing is impeccable, amazing. It should be, she won a Pulitzer for this incredible book. I love the story.
The problem is, I had an image of these wonderful people in my mind, an image I held onto for years and years. From the first time I read the book to the last time I re-read the book, through every movie adaptation, Marmee and Mr. March, though less present than the other characters, were pillars of perfect parenting, virtue, and strength. Brooks doesn’t take that away exactly, but she makes them so human it’s a bit disconcerting.
It’s like the first time you see pictures of your own parents at parties when they were young, before you were around. Or, the moment you come home at the proper time after prom to discover they are nowhere to be found and when you call them they are at some event you were unaware of, laughing and joking. In those moments you think, ‘Wow, they have a life.’ Marmee and Mr. March weren’t exactly having a party, most of the book is about the devastation of slavery and the civil war. Still, that moment you read about Marmee and Mr. March making passionate love in the woods before they were married, a tryst that resulted in Meg, you think: ‘No! I didn’t want to know that about them!’
At the same time, there’s something magical about the way Brooks has managed to weave a new tale from and into an old one. To take a small little quote about the girls missing their father who was so far away where the fighting was and turn it into a very distinct and unique piece of work, to read the telegram insisting Mrs. March go to her ill husband and have a whole life story revealed, it’s simply breath-taking and a bit of genius. It is all very excellent. It just isn’t what I had imagined for them myself.
Granted, many say Brooks based the story off of Louisa May Alcott’s own family life, as Alcott had written Little Women with the same background in mind. With that said, it stands to reason that Brooks book probably honors the author and her own imagination well.
Still, I go back to my eight year old self (the first time I read Little Women) every time I re-read the book. The magic of books is that they may always take you back to a moment, a bit of time in your life where your mindset was a certain way, the feeling you had the first time you read those lines… like a song that gives you chills decades after it has made you cry. Geraldine Brooks’ March, though beautiful and epic, doesn’t fit with my eight year old Little Women reading self. There’s a disenchantment there.
The book is a dichotomy that flusters me to my core. To love a book so much and to be equally indignant about it is frustrating.
I plan to read Eden’s Outcasts next. It is a biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father.
There will be a meeting to discuss March at Half Price Books in Humble at 7:30 pm. Join us!