Book Review: One Thousand White Woman by Jim Fergus (1999)

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Review #67

In order to solve the increasingly violent clashes between the United States government and the Native American tribes of the Black Hills, a radical solution is proposed. The Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, meaning that the children belong to their mother’s tribe. The United States asks for volunteer women to marry into the Cheyenne, becoming part of their culture while also trying to introduce Western values within the Native Americans. May Dodd, who has spent a year wrongfully committed to a mental institution, joins a group of women volunteers venturing into the untamed prairies of the Midwest in hopes of finding a new and better life among the “savages”.

It’s clear that author Jim Fergus did an extensive amount of research on the time period and the Cheyenne people prior to writing this novel. Their language and culture are well represented in One Thousand White Woman. He represents the Cheyenne as a people with both good and bad aspects, and thankfully manages to avoid the “noble savage” trope. This is not Dances with Wolves, where the Native Americans are represented as being in perfect and peaceful communion with nature and their fellow man. The Cheyenne are capable of stunning violence as well as loving relationships, just like every society that has ever existed on Earth.

Since the Native Americans are presented as rather primitive I kept waiting for my other least favorite stereotype to rear its ugly head, that of the “white savior”. Also easily recognized in Dances With Wolves, the white savior brings logic and reasoning to a group of people who would would be utterly lost without them. I was pleasantly stunned to see that Fergus somehow evades this pitfall as well. The white woman are looking to be saved more than they are looking to save the Native Americans. Most of them have volunteered for the “Brides for Indian” program to escape horrible circumstances, and have little interest in converting their new husbands to a Westernized system of thinking. The few women that are depicted as attempting to convert or manipulate their Native husbands are seen as an annoying menace.

Considering that Fergus somehow managed to walk the incredibly thin tightrope between cliches, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I actually did. However, there were a few problems with his writing style that took away nearly all my enjoyment from One Thousand White Women. The first is the Fergus seems to have been trying to break the world record for number of extraneous commas in a novel. This could be something that no one else notices and just annoys me, since I spend an above average amount of time correcting English grammar.

The second thing I found increasingly maddening was how Fergus chose to write his dialogue. He made the decision to italicize any words that are in an English dialect. For example:

“No you don’t, suh, you do not so much as touch my Feeern Louuuuise. Evah. You heah me? Nevah, evah do you lay a finger on my darlindawg

Ya’ve come to the right place, if you’re looking for remote, Broother Anthony that’s for shooore,” said Meggie Kelly greeting the fellow. “Me an’ Susie are a couple a good Catholic gooorls ourselves. An’ we’re ‘appy to ‘aveya along – right Susie?”

Is is just me, or is that the most infuriatingly distracting way to write dialogue? It annoyed me just to type it. Reading this book gave me an active headache, and towards the end of the novel I just started skipping sections that contained italics out of sheer spite. Had I known what I was in for, I would read this book on my eReader, which lacks the ability to italicize words. Although that still would have left the ridiculous drawn out vowels…

It’s rare that such small things are able to detract so greatly from my enjoyment of a book. But both of these issues were so prevalent and obvious that, despite its virtues,  I nearly put One Thousand White Women back on the shelf without finishing it.

My rating: 2/5

You can find One Thousand White Women here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George (1998)

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Review #15

 

Like so many others, I have always been fascinated by the story of the Tudors. As a child, one of my first forays into historical fiction was the story of Elizabeth I from The Royal Diaries series. I have read most of the Philippa Greggory novels, as well as several by Alison Weir. Even though I’m about as familiar with the history of the Tudor dynasty as it is possible for a non-academic to be, I was still excited to sink back into their world when I picked up Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VII.

This was my fourth novel by George, so I was not surprised to see that Henry VIII was over nine hundred pages of small print. All her books are enormous, and in my opinion she could definitely use a more stringent editor. The amount of detail presented in George’s novels is both impressive and frustrating. She obviously does an incredible amount of research for her books. The question is just whether or not the reader needs that much detail.

Henry VIII’s most memorable legacy is undoubtedly the fact that he had six wives, and had two of them executed. Most books about this time period focus on his tumultuous love affair with Anne Boleyn which resulted in England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church. I was therefore surprised to find that this novel was not a love story in any way. Instead of pages and pages about the passionate relationship between the king and the commoner, Henry VIII chooses instead to focus on the religious aspects of the matter. The wives are relegated to the background for long periods. The formation of the Church of England with King Henry at its head is given a lot of attention here. Rather than love, one almost gets the sense that Henry breaks with Rome due to a childish temper tantrum.

The most interesting parts of this novel detail the mental jumping jacks Henry needs to perform in order to justify his actions. The Henry of this book is presented as insecure and lonely, surrounded by sycophants and unable to trust anyone. His early desire for a father figure leads to his close relationships with people like Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey. The fact that he destroyed the lives of both these men (and all of his wives) is important to note. But we are all the heroes of our own narratives, and since this novel is told from the periods of Henry VIII, we are treated to all manner of rationalizations for these actions. The way he tells it, everything happened for a perfectly logical reason.

Why are we so intrigued by the Tudors? Part of me wonders if it isn’t the same reason why people love to watch the Kardashian family bickering, or the drunken antics of the Jersey Shore cast. We love to see privileged people behaving badly. It gives us a sense of moral superiority. In the case of King Henry VIII, his reign also represents a time of extreme religious and political upheaval. After all, Protestantism was able to gain a foothold in Europe due to the actions of one man who loved one girl.

Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII represents another satisfying addition to the historical fiction focused on the Tudors. However, it is far too long. I would recommend it to someone who was incredibly interested in this time period, but it’s definitely an undertaking.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (2017)

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Review #10

 

Lizzie Borden took an axe.

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

In a small New England town in 1892, Elizabeth Borden screams for her maid that her father has been murdered. Police arrive and find the body of Andrew Borden hacked to pieces with what appears to have been an ax. The body of his second wife, Abby Borden, is later found upstairs, also killed by an ax blade.

The story of Lizzie Borden is one of those immortal stories that everyone seems to hear about growing up. She was arrested for the double murder of her father and stepmother, but was acquitted in spite of all the evidence. The jury simply did not feel that a women was capable of such a violent crime. It was an early case of media hype around a murder trial possibly swaying the verdict.

In her debut novel, Sarah Schmidt attempts to recreate the historical circumstances around the days leading up to the murders, as well as the morning that the bodies are found. We begin with Lizzie’s point of view as she “discovers” the her father dead in the house, and then switch perspectives to her older sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and a local man named Benjamin.

Schmidt’s novel, at under three hundred pages, is too short to be split between four perspectives. Instead of one well-developed narrative, the reader is given four half-developed narratives. Lizzie’s is by far the most intriguing since she’s so unreliable, but we spend far less time with her than I would have liked. Her sister Emma obviously detests her younger sister and yet feels a protective instinct to shield her from the realities of the world. I would have liked to have explored that sibling dynamic further. I have no idea why Schmidt felt the need to include their maid, perhaps it was so we could see the way that the family interacted from a dispassionate perspective? Either way, her chapters are infrequent and add little to the overall story arc. The final character, Benjamin, could have been given a lot more to do, and is treated more as an odd red herring than anything else.

The thing is, you have to have someone to root for. If all the characters in a novel are unsympathetic, than logically it is difficult for a reader to feel sympathy towards them. I had hoped to find in this novel a different take on the Lizzie Borden legend. Instead, Schmidt touches briefly on the themes of sisterly love and feminine captivity, but then sacrifices that with repetitive narration that becomes increasingly difficult to follow.

See What I Have Done presents Lizzie Borden as mentally disturbed, possibly even mentally deranged. And let’s be honest, she probably was.

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If anything, she had a very convincing case of crazy eyes.

 

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Daughter of the Gods by Stephanie Thornton (2014)

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Review #6

 

Egypt: 1400s B.C. Hatshepsut is the indulged second daughter of Pharoah Tutmose I. After the tragic death of her older sister, Hatshepsut is expected to wed her half-brother and become the Great Royal Wife. But Hatshepsut has ambitions for greater things than living out her days in the Hall of Women, and begins a journey that will end with her becoming one of the most powerful female rulers in ancient history.

I was obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child. This alien culture growing and thriving on the banks of the Nile was always so delightfully mysterious. That same alienness might be why ancient Egypt is rather underrepresented in historical fiction. Readers have a glut of novels detailing World War II, ancient Rome, and don’t even get me started on the Tudors. But ancient Egypt, a land where it was the height of fashion to have every hair plucked off your body, where it was considered practical to bear your brother’s children in order to preserve bloodlines, can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around.

Thornton’s novel doesn’t shy away from any of this. She presents her novel through her heroine’s eyes, and for Hatshepsut, all these things that are extraordinary to our modern sensibilities are perfectly normal. Going in, it does help to have a basic understanding of the Egyptian pantheon. Within the first few pages, the gods Re, Hathor, Bastet, Sekhmet, and Nut are mentioned. They are not accompanied with a lot of explanation, so it might be useful to have a chart of their mythology available. Same goes for a map of Egypt and perhaps a basic chronology of their civilization.

With or without the extra research, this novel is easily to submerge yourself in. Once you understand the numerous references to various deities, the story of Hatshepsut and her journey to the throne of Egypt is a compelling one. She is acknowledged as one of the first women of power, and yet almost everything we know of her life is pure speculation. Thornton does an admirable job of filling in the gaps, adding a small romantic element, and painting a portrait of a woman who uses her intelligence, daring, and political acumen to cement her place in Egyptian history.

Why is Hatshepsut so shrouded in mystery? It’s impossible to know, but historians all agree that sometime shortly after her reign, nearly all her images were stricken, and her monuments pulled down. Because Hatshepsut’s rule was marked by a long period of peace and prosperity for Egypt, it is thought that subsequent male rules wanted to erase all evidence of a successful female pharaoh from the historical record. Call it an ancient case of fragile masculinity. Whatever the case, a few carvings and monuments survived to tell Hatshepsut’s story, and Thornton picks up these pieces and runs with them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Anyone interested in learning about one of the most fascinating civilization in ancient history, as well as one of the first powerful women in the world would do well to go find a copy of The Daughter of the Gods.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Daughter of the Gods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Traitor’s Wife by Alison Pataki (2014)

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Review #4

 

The novel can be summed up by using its full title: The Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America. The primary focus is on Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia debutante who ensnares Benedict Arnold and convinces him to defect to the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The tale is told through the eyes of Clara Bell, Peggy’s personal maid.

This debut novel from writer Alison Pataki follows the growing trend of telling the stories of great historical figures through the eyes of women. Half the historical fiction novels lately seem to be the “somethings wife” or the “somethings daughter”. Here, at least, we are drawn to the woman behind the curtain. This novel attempts to pinpoint the lion’s share of the blame for Arnold’s defection onto Peggy Shippen. She is depicted as a kind of colonial Lady MacBeth, twisting the mind of her previously good and decent husband until he takes action against the country that he supposedly loves.

“If you can’t break the rules, you might as well seduce the man who makes them”

Peggy Shippen is portrayed throughout this novel as a spoiled, selfish brat who doesn’t care about anyone in the world except herself. She manipulates the hearts and minds of the men around her to get her way and seems almost sociopathic in her lack of sympathy for her fellow man. The only problem is that she is utterly two-dimensional. At least with Lady MacBeth we felt her desire for power and her hunger to place MacBeth on the throne of Scotland. Peggy Shippen is given no more motivation for the overthrow of the Revolutionary War than wanting a large house and pretty gowns to wear. She is unsympathetic in every aspect, therefore we as readers don’t particularly care about her. Had Pataki instilled Peggy with even the barest shred of humanity, we might have felt more of a pang when her carefully constructed plans fall about her ears. As it is, I was just happy the novel was nearly over. Benedict Arnold is given a similar lobotomy, depicted here as a weak, vain, and rather vapid man who is too easily besotted by a pretty smile. I expected more from a man whose very name has become synonymous with treason and betrayal.

This book could have done with a more careful editor. At times I wondered if it was self-published due to the blatant errors that kept popping up. Champagne the drink is a common noun, however here it is always capitalized. A horse is referred to as “mare” and a “he” in the same sentence. The last forty pages are repeated almost completely verbatim from flash-forwards that take place in earlier chapters.

Overall, I found this novel to be interesting in concept but a bit of a mess in execution. Pataki has several other novels out, and I plan to pick up one of her later works to see if her writing style has improved.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Traitor’s Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017)

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Review #3

 

Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a novel set in the city of Milan during the final year of World War II. Pino Lella begins as an ordinary teenager, obsessed with girls and excited about learning to drive. When he is evacuated to a seminary school high in the Alps to escape the Allied bombings , Pino finds himself risking his life to escort Italian Jews over the precipitous heights of the mountains to sanctuary in Switzerland. This sets him on a course of danger and espionage that will echo throughout his life and the lives of his family.

It is very important to read both the foreword and the afterword that Sullivan uses to bookend his novel. Pino Lella is a real person, who is still alive as of the publication of this review. In the foreword, Sullivan details how he stumbled across the story of this unsung hero and how he managed to track Lella down and record his memories of Italy in 1944. Sullivan is also very clear that Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction.  Some of the events and characters seem a little too contrived, and this has led some people to claim that the all of the events detailed within the pages of the book are therefore falsehoods. Since we only have Sullivan’s word to go on, it is left to the reader to determine what is true and what is false.

I chose to believe the story of Lella’s life. The story is told in too straightforward a manner to have been fabricated in any large part. One of the things that makes Sullivan’s novel so magnetic is that he largely avoids any subplots. He focuses on Pino Lella’s specific story with utter precision. There are few extraneous descriptions of people or scenery. We view this story through Lella’s eyes entirely, and therefore his becomes the only voice that matters. We feel his desperation as he leads terrified refugees over the dangerous alpine cliffs into safety. We are there with him as he fears for the lives of his brother, his uncle, his parents. The reader is given only as much information as Lella has. Since most of the education I was given on WWII focused on the German and Japanese fronts, this was a very informative look into what Sullivan describes as the “Forgotten Front”.

My favorite aspect of this novel is that it was utterly unpredictable. Most literature follows a relatively straightforward arc. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But real life rarely follows such simple lines, and I often felt wrong-footed while reading this novel. Characters I thought would live did not. Characters I expected to die did not. No one’s story wraps up neatly in a bow, instead it all just kind of ends. Not all heroes are remembered and not all villains get their comeuppance. Throughout the dozens if not hundreds of historical fiction written on WWII, I found this novel, with its infinite number of unanswered questions, to be one of the most haunting.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. I was immediately drawn into the story of Pino Lella’s life, and finished the book eager to research and learn more. Unfortunately, his story remains largely unacknowledged outside of Sullivan’s pages.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Beneath A Scarlet Sky here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang (2017)

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China, 1908. Seven year old Jialing is abandoned by her mother in their run-down residence on Dragon Springs Road. Because she is zazhong, mixed race, Jialing is met with scorn and derision from her neighbors. She must rely on the residence’s new owners, the Yangs, to take her in and save her from a life of destitution.

I recently finished reading a fantastic historical novel about China during the Communist Revolution, so I went into this book very excited to explore a slightly earlier time, the China during the fall of Imperialism. However, Dragon Springs Road focuses primarily on the relationships between its characters than it does on the historical context. A major theme of the novel is the isolation and restriction of women in Imperial China. Jialing and the other main female characters are utterly powerless to control their fates. They are bought and sold like cattle in order to settle gambling debts or to fuel an opium addiction. Chang does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the futility and claustrophobia that would accompany this kind of subjugation. We feel Jialing’s desperation as she tries to seize control of her own life. We feel her hopelessness when her efforts are repulsed time and again. Chang’s novel is at its best when it focuses on the trials and triumphs of the women living in these difficult circumstances.

Where this book fell flat for me was its lack of historical context. The reader is given glimpses into what day to day life was like during this time period, but we are never really submerged in the era. I was left wanting more. For example, Jialing observes that one of the Yang women has bound feet. This detail is mentioned once, and then never brought up again. Tell me more! I want to hear about the limitations that such a deliberate disfigurement would have on a person’s life. Another example is the abdication of the last Qing emperor. The reader is given virtually no background information on this ruler or why he chose to abandon his lands. Nor does the fact that China just lost its leader carry with it any sense of urgency. It’s simply acknowledged, like a weather report.

Dragon Springs Road is an insightful glimpse into the lives of women in pre-war China. I enjoyed Chang’s depiction of the characters and their struggle to assert their own destinies. I also loved that she painted the entire novel with the softest brush of magic realism. But the novel was crying out for a greater explanation of the historical circumstances, which ultimately left me unsatisfied.

My Rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!