Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835.
Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives; Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt. Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States. Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government. In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.
In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent. Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception).
As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude. Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives. I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read. And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!
Set in 16th century Prague, Wishnia’s new mystery transforms Jewish sexton, Ben-Akiva, and his mentor, the famous Rabbi Loew, into an effective detective team in The Fifth Servant. Just before the start of Passover, a young Christian girl is found murdered inside a Jewish shop, which triggers accusations of blood libel and revives the threat of retribution against the entire Jewish community. As the newly arrived shammes in Prague, Ben has three days to prove that someone else is responsible for the crime, other the the arrested shopkeeper, Federn. Though Ben gains the support of Rabbi Loew, he is hampered by the Inquisition and by ghetto restrictions, so he must depend upon his clever wit and mazl (luck).
I’ll admit that for the first 50 pages or so, I had to keep checking the glossary — I really don’t have a strong background in 16th century Jewish terminology! Still, most of the unfamiliar phrases were readily explainable within their context, so it really didn’t disrupt my enjoyment of the book. The characters are well-developed and the story is richly layered with both spiritual and historical insight, but it is the fast-paced tension that makes this a true page-turner.
Song of Years (1939) The state of Iowa was still young and wild when Wayne Lockwood came to it from New England in 1851. He claimed a quarter-section about a hundred miles west of Dubuque and quickly came to appreciate his widely scattered neighbors, like Jeremiah Martin, whose seven daughters would have chased the gloom from any bachelor’s heart. Sabina, Emily, Celia, Melinda, Phoebe Lou, Jeannie, and Suzanne are timeless in their appeal — too spirited to be preoccupied with sermons, sickness, or sudden death. However, the feasts, weddings, and holiday celebrations in Song of Years are shadowed by all the rigors and perils of frontier living. This novel captures the period in Iowa’s history of Indian scares and county-seat wars, as well as the political climate preceding the Civil War. Mrs. Aldrich based this novel largely on her grandfather’s adventures in Iowa and the stories she heard as a child. from bessstreeteraldrich.com
I read this book while I was in high school. I would lay on my bed with the breeze coming though the windows and am transported onto the Iowa prairie. Bess’ description of the prairie, and every breathless detail made the characters believable, and the characters stay with me long after I finished the story. This book would appeal to readers on many different levels. First of all, there is the historical aspect of the struggle of life on the prairie when Iowa was just becoming state. Second, there is the story of a young girl, unsure of herself, growing to womanhood and finding out who she really is as she faces events that are out of her control. We witness Suzanne’s first infatuation, her crushing disappointment when she realizes her feelings are not returned, and, eventually, a true love that will outlast anything. The reader realizes that though the times may change, the emotions of growing up do stay the same. Sometimes we need a good, old-fashioned story. It still remains my favorite book of all time.
Inspired by the life of the author’s Korean mother, this first novel by Eugenia Kim is a beautiful and satisfying story. The Calligrapher’s Daughter spans 30 years of Korean history, from 1915-1945, and is narrated by najin Han, the daughter of an ultra-traditional and aristocratic calligrapher. Born in 1910 at the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea, her life, through privileged, is restricted by strict social standards, including a very limited education for women. When her father decides to marry her off at age 14, her mother bravely defies him by sending her instead to Seoul, where she serves as a companion to the young Princess Deokhye during the waning days of the centuries-old dynasty.
Later, Najin attends college and works as a teacher and school principal. When her parents again choose a husband for her, she is pleasantly surprised to find that she concurs with their choice of Calvin Cho, who is leaving to study for the ministry in America. However, only one day after her wedding, she is denied a passport. An entire decade passes, separated from her husband with little hope for reunion, as she struggles to survive the hardships and poverty brought on by World War II. Both lyrical and tragic, this novel celebrates the perseverance and strength of women — a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age saga.
Full of lusty kings and beautiful ladies, political intrigue and devastating battles, Phillipa Gregory begins her next collection of historical fiction stories with the triumphant The White Queen. Following the generation before the Tudors (which Gregory brought to life in her popular The Other Boleyn Girl and others), The White Queen is the first in a series of three books and delivers exactly what Philippa Gregory fans expect: excellent writing, fast-paced stories, complex characters. As always, Gregory never forgets the human side of the stories; these are great men and women who will alter the course of history yet they are also just people, with very human faults and virtues.
With the bloody War of the Roses – where cousin was set against cousin – as a backdrop, The White Queen follows Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful widow who catches the eye of Edward of York, the new King of England. Despite her being a commoner and from the rival Lancaster family, they marry and Elizabeth – and her family – rise to power and influence with the young king. There is no fairy tale ending though – men who once supported Edward now seek to overthrow him, more battles are fought and the country, already weary with war, is fighting again.
There are many mysteries and intrigues here including what became of Edward and Elizabeth’s oldest sons, the infamous “Princes in the Tower”, whose fate is still unknown today. Gregory takes us into this world, introduces us to its customs and makes us care. It is historical fiction at it’s best.
Imagine Venice in 1498. Imagine being orphaned and living hand-to-mouth in its busy streets. Imagine you’re Luciano and you’ve just been caught stealing a pomegrante. Will this act send you to the dungeons? No! This act will actually land you an apprenticeship with a maestro chef, who just happens to cook for the doge, the highest court official in Venice.
As unlikely as this sounds now, as a reader, I found it completely plausible. Apparently, the chef sensed some finer qualities in this street urchin, so he takes him in under his wing, encouraging him to learn all he can. The plot thickens as rumor circulates that there is an ancient book hidden within the city that contains many secrets of alchemy — the secret to eternal youth, plus secret recipes for making gold and love potions, among others. Luciano is especially interested in the love potion, hoping that it will help him secure Francesca, an unavailable convent girl with whom he is smitten. The doge, meanwhile, suffering from old age and syphilis, is intent on finding that fountain of youth, and he doesn’t mind committing multiple murders to obtain it.
While most everyone in the city becomes obsessed with finding this precious tome, it is just as jealously protected by the Guardians, who are willing to die to keep its secrets. The ending may not be what you expect, but you’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark is part Da Vinci Code and part Oliver Twist, and recommended for foodies and historical fiction fans.