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Tag: historical fiction

READING THE TBR, DAY 300: The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

This soul-searing novel was turned into a much-feted film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the early 90s, which I remember watching in the cinema upon its release. I was already very fond of stories mired in the past when in my teen years, and I remember convincing my friend Serena that we should totally see this instead of Wayne’s World 2

She was not amused.

It’s not that she didn’t like the movie. It was poignant and weirdly intense, and it certainly made us feel very grown up. But when you are in high school, the restrained and angst-ridden not-quite-romance between a largely oblivious career butler and the housekeeper he doesn’t know he loves, all set against the background of looming fascism in 1930s Europe, isn’t exactly the sexiest story ever.

Reading it now, told in first person by Mr. Stevens as he reflects on his storied career at Darlington Hall, it isn’t much sexier, but it is even more poignant. From Stevens’s complete inability to communicate his true feelings with anyone, to his apologia for his employer’s political foibles, to his excessive pride hidden behind impeccable manners, Stevens is a fascinating central character.

His often fractious dealings with Miss Kenton, at first a newly appointed housekeeper at Darlington who stays for nigh on a decade and clearly somehow falls for the austere Stevens, is detailed sparingly, but exactingly, and as their history is slowly revealed through reminiscence you want to reach into the book and shake Stevens by his dignified shoulders and shout, “Dude, she is totally into you, man! And you’re into her! Do something about it!”

But their romance is not the point of this book. Nor even is the social change brought about by World War II that saw the huge staff Stevens once commanded decimated, and the Hall bought by an American. Instead, it is about one man’s single-minded sense of purpose, and how it is so easy to effectively become your job if you don’t pay attention to work/life balance.

And, also, it is about a road trip, and the kindness of strangers, and the concept of “famous” butlers. And, somewhat oppressively, it is about class.

It is just excellent.

And I think I need to watch that movie again. I think I might find it a bit sexier now. 


TBR DAY 300: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
GENRE: General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Borders Singapore.
KEEP: Indeed.

READING THE TBR, DAY 280: Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) by Karen Cushman

Corpus bones*, I loved this book.

My friend Laura recommended it to me years ago, and, as usual, I bought it right away but just never got around to reading it.

It is so good, I am thoroughly ashamed of myself.

Written in the form of a diary, this book is set in late-13th century England and details the daily trials and tribulations (and occasional joys) of Birdy, the fourteen-year-old daughter of an uncouth but somewhat powerful minor noble of the time. Whether discussing the parasites that plague her, the maidenly occupations that annoy her, or the forthcoming marriage that disgusts her, she is a feisty, hopeful yet strangely pragmatic soul, who rails against her inevitable fate but is aware that she has little say in the course her life will take.

The book does not shy away from some of the less pleasant aspects of Medieval life, nor does it romanticize the period. it is funny, it is immersive, it is upsetting and thought-provoking. One of my favourite parts of the book is how Birdy often denotes her days often by the feast days of saints (England was solidly Catholic at this time), and gives a rather acerbic commentary on the reason for their sainthood. She’s a free-thinker in a time when such was discouraged, especially in the “gentler sex,” and she makes one wonder exactly how many of the girls and women who have disappeared from history — history — might have been just as charming, intelligent and resilient as Catherine, called Birdy.

It was a pleasure to meet her. And I very much hope she ended up with her happily ever after.

* “Corpus bones” is a favourite exclamation of Birdy’s, which I am assuming Cushman gleaned from Chaucer. I very much appreciate this kind of period-specific detail. I was less enamoured of all the fleas, which I know is era-appropriate, but ew. 


TBR DAY 280: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
GENRE: YA, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years. 
KEEP: Absolutely!

READING THE TBR, DAY 266: To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) by Connie Willis

This is so different to Doomsday Book, the first novel in the Oxford Time Travel series. For a start, this book is funny. It is all literary references and sly humour and irony and I did not expect that, given the pervasive, plague-based trauma of the previous novel. Not that there was no irony to be had in the last one, but this one takes it to extremes, and it is delightful.

The story centres around Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in the Blitz during World War II. While a new one was built right next to it during the ensuing peacetime, the ruins remain, and in the time travelly future of this novel, the masterful Lady Schrapnell is determined to restore the original edifice. She demands the assistance of time traveller Ned Henry, who was recently in the 1940s, but Ned is suffering from time lag, and so is sent to the idyllic near-pastoral surrounds of the late-nineteenth century Coventry to both retrieve a significant object and get some rest.

But when there he — and his junior colleague Verity — discover that they may have accidentally Butterfly Effected the future, and so they spend the next several hundred pages alternately trying to break up non-historical relationships, getting out of attending jumble sales, restoring order to the space time continuum and falling in love.

It is the best.

And I now have to go and read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), to which this book appears to be something of an homage — Jerome himself, and his boat, make a cameo — and which has been on my shelves lo, these many years. (Of course.)

I really, really, really loved this book. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into its surreal and kind of nonsensey vibe, but once I was there, I never wanted to leave.


TBR DAY 266: To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel #2) by Connie Willis
GENRE: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 260: Doomsday Book (1992) by Connie Willis

Whole swathes of this book are about illness. Serious illness, like the plague and a vicious influenza, one in the distant past and another in the distant future. 

It’s a clever concept, this book. There is time travel, in that distant future, and historians attempt to infiltrate the past in order to better understand it. Into this program goes one Kivrin, a Middle Ages scholar who insists on a trip to the 1300s, and despite the fact that she is a single woman travelling alone, at a time when such a thing was just not done, and was dangerous as hell, she is permitted to do so by her besotted advisor, Dunworthy.

This is a long book. Oftentimes repetitive, and there is a lot of delirium brought about by assorted fevers, as well as a lot, lot, lot of death. I’m not sure I liked it for most of the time I was reading it, but looking back on it now that I am at last out of its harrowing grip, I can appreciate its many splendours. If nothing else, I can certainly see why it is accounted a modern-day classic of the genre (whatever genre it is: Historical Science Fiction?) and I will certainly be reading the other four books in this series. Most of which I — of course — already own.  


TBR DAY 277: Doomsday Book (Oxford Historians #1) by Connie Willis
GENRE: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Yep. 

READING THE TBR, DAY 235: The Dragonfly Pool (2008) by Eva Ibbotson

This book is so very many things, and while it is ostensibly a children’s book, it is much, much more than that.

And it is completely fascinating.

It’s an English boarding school book. But it’s also a tale of World War II. It’s a story of a sad young prince from a minor European kingdom. It’s a story of classism and racism. It’s a story of the decline of royalty, and the end of empire. It’s a story of friendship. It’s also more than a touch Sound of Music.

It’s just a delight from beginning to end, and the only problem I had with it is that its title is in no way descriptive, nor evocative, of the book itself, and so may not be as attractive to readers as I would like.

Because everyone should read this book. It is funny, it is wise, it is action-packed but also sweet and thoughtful. It is wildly improbable, but also very, viscerally real. I loved it a lot, this story of an unusual school, a trip abroad for a festival of folk dancing (of course!), a little boy lost and the importance of communication.

Also, Nazis are bad, you guys. Just so you know.  


TBR DAY 235: The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years.  
KEEP: Absolutely.

READING THE TBR, DAY 232: A Lady of Quality (1896) by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The last thing I expected was for this book to be set in the 1600s, and to basically be a full-on melodrama. Having read Burnett’s kid-centric books multiple times and her contemporary 1901 romance Emily Fox-Seton earlier this year, I guess I figured that A Lady of Quality — especially given the cover of this 2014 edition that I picked up in the 50c basket a couple of years back — would at least take place in relatively modern times, and not be quite so histrionic.

But this story of two very different daughters born to an improvident, uncaring feudal lord, treated shabbily until the youngest of them turns out to be a tomboy beauty, and the assorted beaux who enter their lives — not to mention, MURDER! — surprised me completely, and not in a good way.

To best encapsulate my feelings about this book, let me tell you that I’m not a hundred percent sure it isn’t a parody—and a failed parody, at that.

I… did not care for it.


TBR DAY 232: A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett
GENRE: Historical Romance, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
KEEP: If I do it will only be because the cover is unintentionally hilarious.

READING THE TBR, DAY 212: Before Adam (1906) by Jack London

Boy, did I never know Jack London.

I had thought I did. I’d read White Fang and Call of the Wild. I thought he was a man’s man, a frontier prose poet who celebrated, venerated, the conquering of man over hostile nature.

But he wrote speculative fiction — so much speculative fiction — and he was so good at it, so intelligent and almost prescient, that I can’t understand why he isn’t better known for his work in the field.

From The Scarlet Plague, a post-apocalyptic nightmare from 1906, to Before Adam, this prehistoric novel of paleolithic man, his imagination knew no bounds as he tells the story of racial memory, in which a modern man dreams of his life in the forest, as an ape-like hominid of limited communication skills but a very definite sense of self, as he navigates the brutal world of clan politics, dangerous predators and new innovations in the Stone Age. It’s Clan of the Cave Bear, but better. So much better. (It’s not eight million pages long, for a start.)

What is perhaps most remarkable about this book is the anthropological theory that it imparts. Take, for example, this sentence:

“… his conduct, in remaining by me, in spite of his fear, I take as a foreshadowing of the altruism and comradeship that have helped make Man the mightiest of the animals.”

This is a pretty new theory, actually, and was not even accepted as probable until this century, a hundred years after this book was written. 

Jack London really was a remarkable writer. I am very much looking forward to discovering more of his non-Alaskan works.


TBR DAY 212: Before Adam by Jack London
GENRE: Classic, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 10 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 88: The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco

This is one of those books that you see on someone’s shelf, and you are impressed that they have — presumably — read it. It is a cultural touchstone, a translated historical classic of Italian literature that made of Umberto Eco a must-own author for all members of the intelligentsia.

I’ve been meaning to read it forever, and actually bought a copy seven years ago, because I want to be in the intelligentsia, too. How depressing, then, when I tried to read it, grew more and more confused and, frankly, bored, and abandoned it only a few chapters in.

I felt like a failure at reading, but at the same time, really didn’t care.

But it’s still been on my TBR, of course, and I knew that I would have that enormous feeling of virtue you get from doing something worthy, if not especially enjoyable, should I actually make my way through it, so I have been reading several chapters most every day for most of this year, and at last, oh happy day! At last, I am done.

And, huh. Sure, I feel good about it. I get why it became one of those badges of popular intellectual honour. I mean, it has sold more than 50 million copies! But the book itself was very, very long, and very very over-written, with way, way too many soliloquies and far too much medieval internecine Catholic politics to make it on my personal list of favourites.

The story deals with Friar William, a religious scholar in the fourteenth century, who heads to an Italian monastery expecting to take part in a dispute between two Catholic sects who disagree about the role of the Pope and the necessity of that pesky vow of poverty they’re all supposed to take. Upon his arrival, however, he and his narrator novice assistant, Adso, become embroiled in a murder mystery, as their colleagues begin to drop dead over the succeeding days, and it has something to do with the library.

But it isn’t the mystery that takes up the majority of all those 500+ pages, it is philosophy and Bible study and extended speeches from supercilious clerics and a history of the Catholic church on the march towards Inquisition. There are long, long scenes in which Adso contemplates the sins of the flesh, and there are even longer ones when religious imagery is painstakingly poured out onto the page and then even more painstakingly explained.

Did I like it? No. Especially when the climax — and I totally guessed the killer, though not the method; very clever — takes longer to resolve itself than Return of the King. But, as I thought I would, I feel very virtuous having at last read it; moreover, there were times where it definitely held me gripped with its expansive ideas, and I quite enjoyed William’s fumbling attempts at detection. So I’m doubly glad to have read it.

Also, I do love a library as a setting. There should be more books set in libraries. It just makes sense. 


TBR DAY 88: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco  
GENRE: Medieval, Mystery, Philosophy, Religion, General Fiction, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 7 years. 
KEEP: Definitely not, despite how impressive it would look to have it on my bookshelf, apparently.

READING THE TBR, DAY 36: Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

The day after my friend Geonn enthusiastically recommended Lincoln in the Bardo as one of the best books of 2017, I saw it prominently featured out front of a bookshop I always pass by. It seemed like fate — I bought it right away.

And now, a mere year or so later, I have read it. And… yeah. I read it.

It’s not that I didn’t like the book. It’s incredibly inventive. It is part history, part fantasy, dealing with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie during the first year of the American Civil War, but more than that dealing with an afterlife lived by the shades of people long-dead, but not yet willing to admit that fact.  

The book is filled with quotes upon quotes upon quotes from primary and secondary sources, all about Lincoln and about Willie and about the Civil War and the inappropriateness of partying when your kid is sick. It gives us a grief-struck Lincoln and a cast of characters sympathetic and hateful, tragic and amusing. The formatting is unconventional indeed, with much of the book given in first person dialogue, shifting from one to another denoted not by prose but as though by stage direction, as the ghosts who haunt the graveyard — the bardo of the title is the Buddhist tradition of a spirit dwelling between life and rebirth — recount their lives and loves and sufferings. And fears of what comes next. Some of the book is bawdy and comical, but there are abrupt shifts to anguish and despair, and even horror. It is populated with singular souls, each with such a distinct voice (and even spelling) that it is not certain how necessary the stage directions actually are.

This book won the Man Booker Prize, which is a big deal, and I certainly felt proud of myself while reading it, and of having read it. There is something about capital-L Literature that makes you feel that way, isn’t there? Whether you enjoy the book or not, it is an accomplishment just to have gotten through it. When it comes to Lincoln in the Bardo, there is accomplishment as well as enjoyment, and the only times it felt like work were when I was wading through all of those quotations. But, like so many books of its experimental ilk, it is one I have no intention of ever reading again… which, to me, is the difference between a good book and a Good book. And I know which one of those I entirely prefer.


TBR DAY 36: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
GENRE: Historical Fiction/Magical Realism
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: Angus and Robertson, Victoria Gardens.
KEEP: Probably not — but I’ll pass it on.