#PassagestothePast #HistoricalFictionChallenge

It’s been a few years since I’ve participated in a reading challenge but Passages to the Past has created a historical fiction challenge again for 2019. I’ll be joining and, if this is a genre that you enjoy, I invite you to join along as well.

Basically, you select a reading level, see below, for the challenge, post on Passages to the Past and link up your reviews throughout the year. Sounds simple enough, right? I’ll be doing this once a month and would love also to link up with you if you join us. The more the merrier!

The Levels
20th Century Reader – 2 books
Victorian Reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 books
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books
Prehistoric – 50+ books

Since this is my first challenge in a while, I’ll be going for the Renaissance Reader but hope to, at least, read one a month so my personal goal is 12 books. If you play along, please let me know. 🙂

 

 

 

 

The Paragon Hotel @LyndsayFaye

The Paragon Hotel is a taut, well told historical mystery that will captivate you from its startling beginning to its breathtaking conclusion.

9780735210752

There are few things that I enjoy more than a great mystery and when it is set in a historical context, it is like icing on a cake. That is exactly what Lyndsay Faye has created with The Paragon Hotel.

It is the era of prohibition and Alice “Nobody” James is mysteriously wounded and fleeing from the mobs of Harlem, New York where she was raised by her prostitute mother. She runs as far as she can to Portland, OR where she befriends the porter for The Paragon Hotel, an all black hotel with mysteries of its own. But events on the west coast are not a lot better than the east as the KuKluxKlan is gaining strength and has targeted the Paragon, the only all black hotel in the city. Alice, who is white, is barely accepted by its black residents and understandably so given the hate that is Klan is bringing to their door step, but she does make friends with Blossom Fontaine, the singer at the hotel, and her ward, Davy Lee. When Davy Lee goes missing, tension rise, alliances are questioned and the racial tension that has been simmering threatens to erupt.

The Paragon Hotel is one of those rare books that is both a suspenseful thriller as well as a looking glass at the past, one that allows the reader to see the important lessons from that era and how those lessons learned might be applied today. One might think that Harlem would have nothing in common with Portland, or that the 1920s is too far removed from current events today, and yet this story blends it all together seamlessly. What should have been a typical mystery, one filled with hate and ugliness, instead evolved into a tale of hope and encouragement.

I was riveted by The Paragon Hotel and could not put it down from the first to the very last page. Its characters were so beautifully drawn that they will continue to haunt me for a very long time and the story itself changed me profoundly. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

My thanks to #Edelweiss, @PutnamBooks, and @LyndsayFaye for my copy of this incredible tale

The Christmas Heirloom

Over the past few weeks we have been preparing @TheWisteriaHouse for the holidays. There are a lot of rooms and many trees to decorate but it’s worth it when all is finished and the house is glowing. One of my favorite parts of decorating, especially the trees, is looking back through all of the past treasures from years gone by. I have inherited antique and vintage ornaments that have been passed down from generation to generation.

47258291_2181497705424521_1241267366977863680_n

There also are all of the newer additions that bring back memories of Christmas past. It was while I was reminiscing that I came across The Christmas Heirloom, four short novellas based on a Luckenbooth brooch that has been passed down from mother to daughter through the centuries. It was the perfect holiday read!

51b0ZcQdLGL

Briefly, there are four complete novellas centered around the heirloom brooch. In the first, Legacy of Love, we are at the beginning of the brooch’s story. Sarah is a companion to a dowager Countess who is dying. It is Sarah’s wish to bring her as much happiness as possible during her final days. Sarah’s story, as she entertains others on the piano and with her very frank talk, is endearing. As she falls for the dowager’s grandson, it would appear that there is no hope of a “happily ever after” ending: a son of a nobleman with a mere companion, but the dowager has other ideas and it is her wish that the two of them find love and happiness together. Her final Christmas gift is bestowing her well-loved Luckenbooth to Sarah. The story is as beautiful as it is uplifting and I enjoyed it tremendously.

The second story, Gift of the Heart, takes us to Texas where Sarah’s granddaughter, Ruth, has moved to start over after the death of her husband. All that Sarah wishes for is a good life for her daughter. It’s just after the Civil War and there are many poor, out of work people throughout the south but Sarah has found a job in a resort town as a cook at a café. It is there that she fortuitously meets the resort’s owner, a recluse who rarely goes out due to a crippling injury. However, this pair bonds over their love for Ruth’s daughter and soon that bond turns to love. This is a heartwarming tale of romance and hope and one that I’m sure will delight readers who love romance, faith and hope, especially during the holidays.

As we move to the third story, A Shot at Love, I began to feel a slight shift in the narrative. Because each story is written by different authors, it is only natural that the stories reflect those author’s unique writing styles. Fleeta, an unusual name for a rather unusual woman, was orphaned at a young age. Told repeatedly that her mother died of a “broken heart” after Fleeta’s father was killed, Fleeta has no use for love or romance preferring, instead, to spend her days hunting and shooting and occasionally doing wood carvings. When she meets Hank, a fellow gun enthusiast, her thoughts begin to shift. Could she actually fall in love with Hank? This was a very well written story and I easily empathized with these West Virginia characters. I am, however, extremely anti-gun and hunting and the story revolves primarily around both. Despite that, the story was written well enough that I did enjoy following the brooch’s tale down to Fleeta, a woman so clearly not a jewelry type gal.

The final story was one that I, personally, didn’t care for. It is now contemporary times and the brooch was “lost” in the attic until it was discovered by Maddy, a young woman who is gathering items for a garage sale where the proceeds will be used for the family in need whom she is helping. Her partner in the holiday shopping is the widow of Maddy’s best friend and the man she has been secretly in love with for years. Their story is a beautiful one and, of course, they find love in the end. There were multiple reasons that I didn’t connect with this last story. I’m an historian and the fact that the heirloom meant so little to Maddy’s mother, who was quite flippant about it, made me cringe. We had followed the brooch from mother to daughter for years and here was a woman who didn’t care at all. It broke my heart. Also, each of these stories are faith based. It’s been years since I’ve read what is now considered “Christian Lit,” but at one time it was the only type of literature that I did read. The first three stories had faith and hope at the core of their story lines. This message was beautifully incorporated into the story and was a reflection of these women’s lives. By the fourth, however, it became the focal point of the story and was not just about faith but was based on the doctrine of this particular writer. Faith is nearly universal, regardless of your religious ideological beliefs. Doctrine is not. It is specific, not just to Christianity, but to unique beliefs within that Christian faith. Had I not been so involved with the brooch and its story, I would have skipped this last story completely.

Overall, the first three stories are worth purchasing and reading the book. They were incredibly well written and utterly enchanting. If it had just been these stories, I would have given the book a 5 star rating and I still highly recommend the book.

Thank you to #Netgalley and #BethanyHousePublishers for my copy of this beautiful Christmas tale.

 

The Dream Daughter @dianechamberlain

The Dream Daughter is a moving novel illustrating that a mother’s love knows no boundaries….

51iDSv958PL._SY346_

Carly has been dealt two blows within a short time-frame. The year is 1970, and she has just been informed that her husband has been killed in Vietnam. The child she is carrying has been diagnosed with a heart defect and will either die before or shortly after its birth. This child is her only remaining connection to the man she dearly loved and she will go to any lengths to save its life – including traveling into the future where the medical care is available.

Remember the cult classic Somewhere in Time? It was a fabulous novel made into a movie starring Christopher Reeve. I was one of its devoted followers and watched the movie over a dozen times. I love time travel when it is done well; after all, I doubt it will be much further into our own future that it is possible. Things that I once thought of as “space age,” now are my reality so time travel isn’t a leap of faith for me. The Dream Daughter is one of those rare books that does do time travel well.

Diane Chamberlain creates a story of familial love, a mother’s desire to protect her child both in the present and in the future and she does it in a manner that is completely realistic, well developed and, most importantly, thoroughly engaging. As readers we can feel the compassion, fear and hope that Carly feels. We come to understand her actions – both in the present and future. I laughed with her, cried with her and was angry with her. It is a heartbreaking tale at times and, in fact, my heart did break throughout the story. But there is more to this domestic tale than sadness; it is one of hope and wonder. That an author can pull this off so well is a testament to her incredible writing skills.

Because a majority of the story is told in 1970, there is a lot of what is now our history, but Carly’s present. I was amazed at the way that Chamberlain handled the events of that era. It was a time of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the rise of the Beatles, the Kent State massacre and so much more. All of these events play a large role in the storyline, as does the 911 World Trade Center tragedy. It was interesting to read about these events from the viewpoint of historical context.

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Dream Daughter, there were a few minor detractions. Of course it is not written from a scientific standpoint so if one is looking for the science of time travel you won’t find it here. There also were times that I felt there was too much minutia and, rather than pulling me into the storyline, it made those sections of the book drag. Despite those minor irritants, however, the book is wonderfully written with characters that will not be soon forgotten. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Thank you to #StMartinsPress and #Netgalley for my copy of The Dream Daughter, on sale October 2, 2018.

 

Sold on a Monday – #KristinaMcMorrris

For Sale photo - tilted med blur

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and for Kristina McMorris this certainly holds true. The photo, above, inspired the author to write a heart-wrenching tale about a reporter who snaps a photo much like the one above, a photo that will change the lives of the family in the photograph and many others as well.

cover132721-medium

Sold on a Monday is a historical fiction book based on the photograph seen above. The story is set against the backdrop of the Great American Depression, an era that many Americans have chosen to forget. In creating this tale, McMorris brings the horror, pain and suffering of that time back to life again and in such beautifully written prose that it will carve this moment in time forever in your memory.

This is exactly the type of historical fiction that I enjoy – it’s fiction, yes, but there is so much truth, research and heart-wrenching details that the story comes to life before your eyes. In Sold on a Monday, McMorris tells the story primarily from the view point of two newspaper workers, one a reporter, the other is a woman who desperately wants to become one. Their lives intertwine over the photograph of two children who were for sale, a last act of depression that often occurred during the depression. As we learn more about this pair, their own personal histories, as well as what ultimately happens to the children, we discover the heartbreak, shame, the struggle of every day life during The Depression and the pain that everyone suffered just to survive.

While Sold on a Monday is very heartfelt and at times it borders on despair, McMorris does not give us a maudlin book but rather one of courage, hope, love and friendship. In her own words, she gave the happy ending that she wished the children in the photograph could have had.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Regardless of your typical genre themes, this is a book that will cross those barriers and grab you into its soul from the first page to the very last.

Thank you to #netgalley, #kristinaMcMorris and #sourcebooks for my copy of this incredible book.

 

Southern Saturday Lit

gods-of-howl-mountain

Gods of Howl Mountain takes us far down onto the Southern Literary Trail, deep into the mountains of North Carolina. Taylor Brown has created a very dark, intense, somewhat mysterious tale of bootlegging, clan wars and folk healing set in the turbulent 1950s.

Rory Docherty, a Korean War hero, has returned home to live with his grandmother, a folk healer. There he runs whiskey for one of the most powerful bootleggers in the mountains. It is also where he fights his demons – from the war, the loss of his men and his leg, the past that took his father from him at the hands of his own mother. This is a very noir, but realistic, look at the mountain folk of the south throughout twentieth century – not just the 1950s but even, somewhat, today. There are secrets, mysteries, the unknown, that are easier to hide in the mountains than they are in the open land.

This is not a “thriller” or even a suspense novel, but a slow moving tale of these mountain people. There were times that I felt there was too much emphasis on description and too little on the actual plot. However, southern writers tend to be more descriptive and disquisitional so that should be taken into account.

Brown has been compared to Wiley Cash and Cormac McCarthy, both of whom are favorite authors of mine. Although all three write dark, atmospheric tales set in the south, there is a depth that is missing in this Brown novel that would prohibits it being placed in a category with the others. I do see a similarity between Brown’s characters and those of Flannery O’Connor; whether or not that is intentional or a product of southern literature, I’m unsure.

Gods of Howl Mountain is not going to be a book for everyone, however, if you like good, narrative fiction with great detail to character development and setting, then you will enjoy reading Taylor Brown. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 for quality.

 

Hour Glass

As we head down the Southern Literary Trail this Saturday, we are going deep in the heart of Texas where we find Michelle Rene, author of Hour Glass.

d3635a_b1a3111c3044473b8e513c74b029c6a8~mv2_d_1575_2400_s_2

Americans love westerns and few characters stand out as vividly as do Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Long after the west ceased to be “wild,” these two took their skills on the road and created a wild west show for all of America to see. They became the stuff of legends. In Hour Glass, we find Calamity Jane toward the end of her life, less of a star and more of a legend but still as brassy and sassy as always. This, however, is a story as much about Jimmy Glass and his sister, Flower aka Hour, as it is about Jane. It is a story of a young boy whose father was dying who fought against the elements, the town and against all hope, and found help in the least likely place – Calamity Jane and the patrons of the saloon in which she was living.

The story of Jimmy Glass and his sister, is a beautiful, albeit heavily fictionalized, one. Michelle Rene crafts a wonderful tale that invokes an era that many have only seen in old televised westerns or on Deadwood. Her prose is elegant and vivid. However, and I really do hate to add the whatever to this review, as an historian I would prefer the accounts of the real people used in historic fiction either to be very accurate or fictional characters used in their stead. This is not Calamity Jane any more than her version of Vincent Van Gogh was the real Van Gogh. When using real, actual characters who are not so far removed from our current generation, the writer has the power to re-write history and whitewash the actual character as well as the times, events and places. This was not a beautiful time – it was ugly, mean and very dirty. I prefer real facts with all of the dark realities that go with them over the poignant re-telling that some authors are doing today, including Michelle Rene. It’s easier to tell a pretty story and make hard characters soft than it is to show the reality of our history.

If you want to read a very fictionalized account of American history then you will probably like this book. I, however, cannot rate it above 3 stars and, for me, that is being generous based entirely on her writing ability.

 

Fab Fiction Friday with The Cottingley Secret

Do You Believe in Magic, in a Young Girl’s Heart?

thecottingleysecret

Do little girls still believe in magic at all? After reading The Cottingley Secret, this not-so-young-girl believed!

In 1917, the Big War had just broken out when Frances Griffiths’ father joined up to “do his part.” Frances and her mother were whisked off to England to stay with relatives, including her cousin, Elsie. Obviously, Frances was young, bored, worried and sad and she often spent time alone in the beck, a clearing by the pond. It is there that she first saw the faeries. Of course, no one believed her at first, not even Elsie, perhaps not even you. But after a time she decided she should photograph these faeries to convince her family that they were, in fact, real. The rest, as they say, is history. The very real Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw the photographs, examined them thoroughly and declared them “authentically true.” Yes, he really did.

In an alternate timeline set in the present, the reader is told of Olivia who has inherited her grandfather’s bookstore and with it a manuscript entitled, “Notes on a Fairy Tale.” Inside is the very story of Frances, Elsie, the faeries and the photographs.

Told from alternating points of view, Hazel Gaynor, has spun her fairy tale of beauty, magic and love that spans throughout time for over a century. While the narrative goes from Frances to Olivia and back, the reader is never lost or distracted. In fact, with snippets of factual journal entries, there is just enough truth in this piece of historical fiction to suspend belief and allow the reader to enter a land of magic where imagination reigns and innocence still exists. At the end of the story, the reader, will be amazed to find the actual photos of the faeries that Conan-Doyle inspected. Yes, they are real. The photographs. You will have to decide for yourself if you believe Frances’ story. I know that I do. Very much.

There are few books that I recommend without hesitation to all; this book is one of them. I had not read other reviews and had not seen spoilers and I have not given you any here. This is a tale that should be enjoyed without any preconceived notions of good or bad, reality or fiction… just read and enjoy. I know you will.

HazelGaynorHazel Gaynor, author of The Cottingley Secret

(Lyrics “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful.)