Tag: historical fiction

Recent Reading: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

I had planned on posting much more frequently starting January 2019, since I’m not teaching this semester. Hah. Oh well, at least I’ve been reading.

I finally finished Minds of Winter, which I bought when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. I restarted it several times because I’d pick it up and put it down and then not remember what I’d read. It’s a big, sprawling book, covering many characters, time periods, and even continents, so it helps to read it steadily. But it’s too big (500 pages) to read all at once!

I finally acknowledged that if I didn’t make it a reading project I wasn’t ever going to finish it. And I did want to. So I skimmed the first 100 pages (again) and then settled in. Readers, the journey was well worth the effort.

There are two storylines. One is made up of various polar explorations, starting with Sir John Franklin’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the disappearance of his crew and ship. Somewhat confusingly, the historical storyline starts in Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), where Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor before his last voyage. Eventually that authorial decision makes sense to the reader, because other important characters are introduced. This storyline moves on to cover the expeditions in search of Franklin’s ship as well as other polar explorations. It’s very wide-ranging and often confusing to those of us who aren’t steeped in Shackleton, Franklin, and Arctic/Antarctic lore. But hang in there because it really does come together in the end in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.

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Booker Longlist Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This novel has now been longlisted for both the Booker and Giller prizes. It was one of the novels I especially looked forward to, and I found its themes interesting and ambitious, but the execution ultimately unsatisfying.

George Washington Black is a young boy, an outdoor slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, when he is plucked from the fields to assist the scientist brother of the villainous plantation master. When a cousin of the family dies and Wash is likely to be implicated, the brother, named Titch, and Wash take off in an airship. Thus begins their adventure, which takes Wash from Barbados to Virginia to arctic Canada to England and beyond, all in a brisk 350 pages.

The novel has the structure of an adventure story but Wash is a slave and Titch is the brother of his master and it’s 1830s US and England. So there’s much more going on than the normal coming of age story (Wash is barely a teenager when the novel opens). The first part, set on Barbados, is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of plantation slavery. The villain may seem cartoonish and the conditions exaggerated, but the historical record pretty much confirms that this depiction is not unusual. The publisher’s blurb calls it steampunk, but none of the science is far-fetched. Airships, diving suits, and the types of scientific inquiry and specific experiments being conducted were all around at the time the story is set.

Since this is one of the Booker longlist choices a lot of people have been reading it at the same time, and I have felt as if I’m reading an entirely different book from them. Some readers have focused on the adventure aspects, calling it a rollicking story. I never had that feeling. Wash is a fugitive slave for a large portion of the book, and he’s chased by a bounty hunter for most of it. He’s at risk for capture in the US portion, especially since slavery is still legal, and in Canada and England he’s frequently treated as something less than human. When he falls in love and enters into a romantic relationship it regularly puts him at risk. His great scientific and artistic achievements are appropriated by white men, who encourage him but either can’t or don’t find ways to give him credit for his contributions. The story is suffused with the knowledge that he will probably never have a fully peaceful, satisfying life, because the world will not allow it.

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Review: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I ran across a couple of articles about this historical mystery earlier this year, put it on my mental to-read list and promptly forgot about it. Then Liz Mc2 discussed it in a recent blog post and I discovered that it was available through the library. So I took advantage of some extra reading time and sat down with it. I discussed the book in comments to Liz’s post as I was reading it, but rather than filling up her comment feed I decided to write up my thoughts more fully here.

I wanted so much to like it. A mystery set in 1919 Calcutta about a British policeman, which is written by a British Asian rather than the usual white author? Yes please. And the reviews have been very favorable. Sadly, I think the reviews are as much about the intention and effort as the execution. This is so clearly a first novel, and maybe the second one will address some of the many flaws. I hope so, because there is stuff to like here, but the problems are glaring. Some are undoubtedly consequences of first-novelitis, but a lot of them should have been dealt with long before the book was released.

Captain Sam Wyndham is paired with Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee to investigate the murder of a high-ranking civil servant. Wyndham has just come to Calcutta and this is his first case. In addition to Banerjee he works with Digby, a veteran police officer who is resentful at being passed over for promotion. Wyndham soon finds that the murder is more complicated than it seems, potentially implicating British officials, Indian activists, and millionaire businessmen. Wyndham moves between the British and Bengali communities, trying to piece together evidence.

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Reading challenge update

I’m still plugging away at my various reading challenges. There’s no way I’ll read 20 books by Labor Day for the #20booksofsummer challenge, but I’ll be curious to see how many I do read. I’ve finished four books since I last posted.

Worth the risk coverWorth the Risk by Sarah Morgan. This is the first book by one of my favorite romance authors, published in the Mills & Boon Medical Romance line. It was somehow NOT in my TBR, but my library had the re-released version and I wanted a comfort read. Morgan’s has a number of early books set in villages in northern England and Scotland, and this is one of a series focusing on characters who do mountain rescue work. It features traditional tropes (sort-of secret baby, unexpected virgin, bad boy hero, etc.), but Morgan was putting interesting spins on these tropes from the very beginning of her writing career.

Ally McGuire is a doctor who enjoys her job and focuses her life around Charlotte, AKA Charlie. Then Sean Nicholson walks into both her medical practice and her life, upending her carefully established equilibrium. Sean and Ally are attracted from the outset (there is a meet-cute involving abseiling and rescue), but Sean has enough baggage to sail across the Pacific. There is medical stuff and romance stuff, all mixed together in a recipe that worked well for me. I haven’t been reading much romance lately, but there are certain styles and stories I always return to, and this is one of them.

Lady Madeline coverThe Advent of Lady Madeline by Pamela Sherwood. I went from an autobuy romance author to a new-to-me romance author who had flown totally under my radar, despite being interviewed years ago at DA. Janine recommended the first full novel in Sherwood’s Lyon’s Pride series, but I wasn’t quite willing to commit that much time and energy so I opted for the prequel novella. Hugh Lowell, Viscount Saxby, goes to a house party at the estate of the Duke of Whitborough in order to keep an eye on his young relative. Hugh is planning to propose to a very appropriate young lady, but he is taken with the somewhat on the shelf, fascinating daughter of the Duke, Lady Madeline.

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