Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: The Tumbling Turner Sisters

Screenshot 2016-05-22 at 11.56.59 AMRecap: Winnie and Gert come from an already poor family, but they’re about to be poorer. Thanks to their father’s drunken mishap and hand injury, he can no longer work in the factory where he’s employed, and now they, their mother, their two other sisters and baby nephew must find a way to keep going and pay the rent. Their older sister, Nell is too busy caring for her baby and too depressed over the loss of her husband to help. Their younger sister is still in school. But their mother is all too resilient to let the family fall apart. It’s the early 1900s. The solution is easy. Become a travelling vaudeville act. And that’s exactly what the sisters do.

They practice their tumbling and find an agent who books them gigs throughout Upstate New York. Along the way, Winnie meets a wonderful man who, unfortunately for her mother and her bias, is an Italian immigrant from Boston. His younger sister and Winnie’s younger sister become close friends as well. But Gert, the voluptuous older sister, falls for a black man, a fabulous tap dancer who performs in shows with them. Their love is kept secret for fear they would get in trouble. But a racially-induced misunderstanding eventually forces him to leave the show and escape, leaving Gert in shambles.

And as The Tumbling Turner Sisters continue travelling, adding things to their act and becoming bigger and better, it becomes harder or even impossible for Winnie and Gert to keep in touch with the men they love. They are finally reaching a state of comfort financially and emotionally until one tragic event changes everything. The girls start to realize vaudeville may not be forever, but where will The Tumbling Turner Sisters turn next?

Analysis: A story about four sisters growing up, working together, encouraging each other and trying to find their way in life, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is like a vaudevillian version of Little Women — a correlation made just a little too obvious with the author’s mention of the American classic within her own novel, as Winnie attempts to read Little Women, but is bored with it.

I suppose by contrast, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is more exciting than Little Women (though I will always love that book), and the narration helps with that. Each chapter goes back and forth between narration by Gert and Winnie, clearly the strongest characters in the novel and women in the family, offering differing perspectives on their lives, the theater and the world between 1918 and 1920.

Author Juliette Fay also does such an excellent job of seamlessly including historical aspects of the early 1900s America with her descriptions of vaudeville life that it helps to touch on the social issues of the novel, including  women’s role in society, racism and the economy. The setting is just as big a character as any, making it glaringly obvious just how far we’ve come since then (Women can vote! And go to college!) and yet, how little has changed in terms of racism. Her writing really puts things in perspective.

MVP: Winnie and Gert. Though initially described as sisters who couldn’t be more different — Winnie, the brainy type who wants to be a nurse and vote for the next President  and Gert, the Becky-with-the-Good-Hair of the novel who is beautiful and always has a suitor — they are also the most determined and focused on their goals and their family.

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Review: The Nightingale

515p3orn1kl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Recap: Viann and Isabelle are two sisters at different points in their lives, who are both dealing with the same struggle: surviving in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Just because they’re not Jewish doesn’t make things any easier. Viann and her daughter are forced to house a Nazi while Viann’s husband fights in the war. While she prays daily for her husband, she also must continue teaching students at school and being the primary support for her Jewish best friend and neighbor. She carries on with her duties while watching her hometown fall apart and witnessing death and destruction.

While Viann tries to get through each day, Isabelle decides she must do something and joins rebel group. She moves back to France to live with her father, with whom she has a tumultuous relationship. After months of passing notes between other rebels, she takes up an even greater cause: saving injured foreign soldiers by leading them through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.

The story goes back and forth between WWII and a time 50 years later, when one of the sisters considers returning to France for the first time since the war.

Analysis: As much as I love books, it takes a lot for one to make me cry, and The Nightingale had been sobbing, but not in a depressing way like My Sister’s Keeper, and not in a unnecessarily depressing way like One Day. The ending of The Nightingale was simply so perfect, so beautiful that it brought tears of joy to my eyes in the best way. These sisters suffered through so much and made so many sacrifices. Their lives didn’t go the way they wanted or expected them to, but the way they lived them was worth it in the end. Without giving away too much, it was just beautiful.

The mystery of which sister was telling the story 50 years later kept me turning pages as much as their own individual stories. Even the less interesting sections about Viann cooking dinner were still fascinating because of the greater issues going on around her.

I also loved that this was a Holocaust fiction novel about two non-Jews. It makes it obvious that even for the groups that weren’t targeted, there was still so much pain and anguish, and that’s not something we hear about too often when reflecting on Europe during WWII.

MVP: Isabelle. She received the least amount of love. Her family constantly pushed her away. She never received the support she needed or deserved. And yet, she showed more love, gave more support and exhibited more strength than any of the characters in the novel. She made life possible for so many people, and that cannot be ignored.

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Review: The Storyteller

Recap: Sage Singer is perfectly content with her sad, lonely life. Well, “perfectly content” may not have been the right phrase to use. That said, she’s comfortable, working overnights at a bakery, keeping distant from her sisters since their parents died, and sleeping with a man who has a wife and family. But everything changes with Sage meets Josef Weber. He’s not a new love interest. He’s a 90-year-old retiree who lives in her small Rhode Island town and lets Sage in on a secret. He tells her he’s a former Nazi and wants Sage, a Jewish girl, to kill him and end his guilty suffering.

In typical Jodi Picoult controversial-story-content fashion, Sage must decide what to do — whether to assist suicide this reformed Nazi or whether to let him continue his suffering until he eventually dies. As she struggles with the decision, she reaches out to the Department of Justice. Leo is the agent set on helping her uncover Josef’s secrets and prosecute him. In order to do that, she needs the help of a Holocaust survivor. Luckily, Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is such a woman. Minka shares her horrific story in the hopes that it will be enough to convict Josef for all his wrongdoings. But along with the detail-oriented investigation and research lies another issue — time. Will Sage, her grandmother and Leo be able to pull this all together before Josef dies of regular old age?

Analysis: Jodi Picoult does it again — choosing a controversial issue about which to write and finding a way to develop emotionally complex characters. She sticks to the same format as her other books, switching between narrators each chapter. I like that format. It works for her books because it allows the reader to better understand the different sides of each controversial topic. But in The Storyteller, things became muddled in the middle.

The grandmother’s section about her experience in the Holocaust was long and gruesome. It was powerful, and maybe that’s why she chose not to have another character break up the section. But It was so emotionally difficult for me to get through, it would have been nice to have had another characters’ thoughts interspersed there.

The novel was so great, the story so powerful, the pain so excruciating, and then there was the ending. The end was a bit of a shock, but not enough to leave me breathless. It was not as satisfying as it could have been. After all Picoult did to build those characters, all I could do at the end was shrug. And that was disappointing.

MVP: Sage is a mess at the start of the novel. But by the end, she gets it together in the most unlikely of ways. She proves her strength, finds her undiscovered confidence and voice, and she finally does something. Her growth was wonderful to follow.

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Review: Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution

Recap: Lola Montez is on the run, and where to next? It’s the mid-1800s, and Montez is not one to settle. So when she is dared to seduce a king, she moves to Bavaria to try her hand at seducing King Ludwig I. That’s where she becomes one of the most famous mistresses in European history. Does this sound familiar? It might. That’s because it’s all based on the true story of the real Lola Montez, an actress, dancer, and mistress from the 19th century.

It’s her relationship with King Ludwig that results in backlash from the public. But Lola and her crazy self is too oblivious to notice the continental shakeup she’s had a part in starting. As she hooks the king, she continues to have sexual relationships with other men. Meanwhile, her daughter is cared for by her own mother — the fact that she’s the mother is kept secret from the both the little girl and anyone else Lola knows. Right decision or not, it’s enough to give Lola a reason to keep going.

Analysis: It’s hard for me to put into words what I didn’t like about this book. All I can say is there was a lot. It was twisty, and with no knowledge of the real Lola Montez, I didn’t know where the story was going. Her character comes off not so much cosmopolitan as she is casually slutty. The book is obviously meant to be comedic; we’re meant to laugh at her obliviousness and her ability to command attention and power without necessarily meaning to. But instead, I found it annoying. She came off as silly and dumb to me, making it difficult for me to connect with her and her story. The most interesting part was the relationship she had with her daughter — the daughter who doesn’t know Lola is actually her mom. But the reader only gets small glimpses into that relationship.

The book is also hard to read as a stand alone. It’s the third book in a series about Lola Montez, the Whip Smart series, and though it was teased as a novel I’d be able to read without having read the previous novels, it didn’t feel that way. It referenced things that happened in the earlier books fairly often. Eventually I was able to figure it out, but it made it hard for me to sympathize with Lola and what she had already been through.

MVP: Lola Montez. Despite how many issues I had with the book, she was nothing if not a spicy character with lots of personality! I couldn’t help but laugh at her casual looseness and aloofness.

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Review: The House Girl

Recap: When young associate lawyer Lina Sparrow is assigned to a massive class-action case involving slavery, she at first, has no idea where to begin. The client her firm is representing is seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves — an historic case that, if won, would bring in millions for hundreds, if not thousands of slave descendants. It’s a tough case, but Lina is determined to win, and so begins the research. She must find the perfect lead witness, a slave descendant with a rich backstory that will tug at the jury’s heartstrings.

That’s when she decides to find a living descendant of Josephine Bell, a Civil War era slave from Lynnhurst, VA. Josephine’s owner, Luanna Bell, was an amazing artist, but according to legend, Josephine was the one secretly finishing Missus Bell’s paintings and sketches. A slave with an amazing talent, who never received recognition would make Josephine Bell’s descendants perfect for Lina’s case.

As readers, we delve into the stories of both extraordinary women, both on a mission — one, for the biggest success of her career, the other, for a chance at freedom. As their stories unfold, we learn more about their individual backstories and how their families have affected who they’ve become.

Analysis: Historical fiction mixed with modern-day storytelling, The House Girl switches back and forth between Josephine chapters set in Virginia in the 1850’s and Lina chapters set in New York City in 2004. Chapters devoted to only one person allows the reader to get a deeper reading of each woman. We learn about Lina’s mother who was killed when she was only four years old, and the broken, but still somewhat close relationship she has with her artist father, Oscar. We’re also given insight into the mentoring relationship Josephine was lucky enough to have with Missus Luanne Bell. Not to mention, understanding of her desire to escape slavery in the North.

The House Girl tells a truly beautiful story of two completely unrelated characters from different worlds and different time periods connecting in an unexpected way. The way author Tara Conklin is able to balance between fiction and historical fiction is impressive and keeps the book moving, as the reader desperately wants to learn how these two women end up.

At times, there are so many subplots, some seem to get lost in the shuffle. Not to mention, the ending feels a bit rushed and maybe even anticlimactic. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point isn’t to get the ending we’re expecting, but o understand that when Josephine gets her happy ending in a not-so-happy way, Lina realizes the happy ending we want for her, isn’t really the one she wants.

MVP: Lina. An incredibly focused, driven woman, she’s the only who seeks out Josephine and works to bridge their worlds together. Although it’s not appreciated, she does it, and finds her own happiness along the way.

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Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Recap: As a less than fortunate 7-year-old living in 19th century China, all Lily wants is to become close to a group of “sworn sisters” — or best friends — and marry well. Seven is not typically the time when you think of marrying, but it is for Lily and her family, who live in a remote Hunan county. But everything changes when a matchmaker tells her family that Lily’s feet — the truest sign of beauty, luck, and wealth — can not only lead to a marriage into a rich family, but a “laotong,” or “just same.” A “laotong” is a best friend with whom one forms a much deeper relationship than she ever could with a group of “sworn sisters.”

That’s when Lily meets Snow Flower. The two vow to be best friends in the form of a contract written on a secret fan. Over several decades, Lily and Snow Flower grow to be as close as two people can get. They share secret notes and letters on that same fan throughout the years. They marry. They have children. But Lily produces a number of sons and marries well, while Snow Flower produces stillborns, weak sons, and daughters. She marries a butcher — the lowest of the low, and does not fair well.

With a friendship as long and deep as theirs, it seems unfathomable that anything could break it, but the secrets run deeper than Lily knows. And in the end, the novel — written in first person — becomes an apology note.

Analysis: Though it’s set in China in the 1800’s and devotes a portion of the novel to the Taiping Rebellion, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about a real female friendship. In Lily, we see the friend who tries to care, tries not to judge, but in the end, shows selfishness. In Snow Flower, we see the friend who tries to hide her secrets out of shame and holds onto that passivity throughout her life.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a testament to the ways a relationship between two women can change over the years. Little girls, little problems; big girls, big problems, and those problems can have a devastating effect on a friendship. Lisa See’s themes here are similar to those she writes about in Shanghai Girls, but they run just as deep. The end is heartbreaking, but as a woman, it’s completely relatable, making See’s first bestseller an excruciating, but exhilarating tale.

MVP: Lily. Both Lily and Snow Flower demonstrate flaw after flaw throughout the novel. But Lily finally comes to terms with what’s happened between them. She apologizes and makes up for it as best as she can. It takes a lot of strength to persevere through what Lily has, but she does it with elegance.

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Review: Shanghai Girls

Recap: In Shanghai — “The Paris of China” — in the 1930’s, Pearl and May Chin are privileged, beautiful, rich girls, raised in a life of glamour, parties, and all things wonderful. But when their father informs them that he’s broke and has made a deal to marry them off to make up for his losses, their world changes entirely. Add to that the beginning of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, and you’ve got the makings of a deeply impactful story.

Shanghai Girls follows Pearl and May as they marry the men their father has selected — Sam and Vern. It follows them as they journey overseas to America — and get stuck on Angel Island for months before they’re allowed into the country. And it follows them as they begin to build a life based on the American dream — a dream they never knew they had before.

Analysis: Shanghai Girls is divided into three parts: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Typically, dividing a book into portions doesn’t have much of an effect on me or the way I read it. But in the case of Shanghai Girls, it works. The way Pearl’s and May’s lives unfold is drastic. They face so many ups and downs that the parts helps to separate them and keep track of everything.

The first part of the book is difficult to get through. It’s graphic, depressing, and — no, heartwrenching. Because the young girls face so much hardship, I found I needed to know what happened. I longed to learn how they got out of their mess, if they got out. Shanghai Girls deals with many social issues of the time — war, Communism, illegal immigration, and civil rights. Reading it makes clear how much harder things were for the Chinese than most other U.S. immigrants.

The tale of Pearl and May is gripping. But it’s also a story of love — love between two sisters who only have each left in a crazy world. Pearl and May are the only truly stagnant parts of each other’s lives, and reading about their deep understanding and respect for each other is as captivating as the story itself.

MVP: Pearl’s husband, Sam. Each character in this novel has some kind of overwhelming flaw. But not Sam. Though he initially appears as the “evil” husband who Pearl is forced to marry, he becomes the perfect husband. And despite  his tragedy, he still remains the character that stands out as the kindest, most loving, and down to earth person in the book.

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