Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew

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augustThe Dry Grass of August

Written by Anna Jean Mayhew 
Published by Kensington Books in 2011 
Genre/Topics: Adult, Historical Fiction, South, Integration 
289 pages
The Dry Grass of August is told from the perspective of 13 year-old June “Jubie” Watts in the South during the 1950s. On a hot August day in 1954, Jubie, her mother, siblings, and their black maid, Mary Luther, travel from Charlotte, North Carolina, towards Florida. Mary Luther has been with the family, since Jubie was five. Jubie feels a closer relationship to Mary who provides care than her own mother. Along the journey to Florida, Jubie notices anti-integration signs and hostile feelings towards blacks. The story switches between present time during the vacation and a past back story to learn more about the family. The reader slowly understands Mary Luther’s role in the family and family tensions. Tragic events occur and Jubie must decide how to act with her feelings.
I really enjoyed The Dry Grass of August. It was a different perspective about a topic that many are familiar with. The reader knows that something happens to Mary Luther in the first paragraph, so you don’t know exactly when and how it occurs. There is some violence and difficult context at times, so I recommend this for adult readers. If you enjoyed The Help, I think you’ll enjoy The Dry Grass of August. It also is a great book for a book discussion.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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sarah's keySarah’s Key 

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay
Published by St. Martin’s Press on January 1, 2006
Genre/Topics: Adult, Historical Fiction, Holocaust, France 
294 pages 

Three Word Review: Heartbreak, Tragedy, Secrecy

Sarah’s Key surrounds two individuals and time periods: Sarah a ten-year-old Jewish girl in 1942, and Julia an American Journalist in 2002. Both stories begin in Paris, France. Julia begins research on the sixtieth anniversary of the  Vel’ d’ Hiv‘. The Vel’d’Hiv’ Roundup was a mass arrest upon  13,152 Jewish men, women, and children in July 1942 by the French police. Julia discovers that many French citizens are either unaware of the tragic event or deny it. Sarah’s family was arrested and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (indoor cycle track) where they lived in terrible conditions before being sent to death camps. During the arrest, Sarah told her younger brother Michael to hide in the cupboard and she would return to free him with the key. Julia discovers a secret connection to Sarah and is determined to learn all the facts. However, during her research into Sarah’s past she begins to question her own life. Sarah’s Key is filled with heartbreak through Sarah’s and Julia’s eyes. 

I enjoyed Sarah’s Key, but at times I thought it was a little predictable. It highlights a small tragic event through the eyes of a young girl. I think Sarah’s Key would be a great discussion for a book club.

Book Review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

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musketeersThe Three Musketeers

Written by Alexandre Dumas 
Translated by Lowell Bair
Published by Bantam Classics on June 1, 1984 
Originally published in 1844
Genre/Topics: Fiction, Classic, Adventure
635 pages 

Three Word Review: Adventure, Revenge, Comradeship

“All for one, one for all.”

The Three Musketeers is an adventure book about four French men, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan, who stick together at any cost. Their motto: “All for one, one for all” is often used even today to describe a close friendship. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are musketeers who fight for the king and d’Artagnan strives to be one of them. They’re not even close friends at the beginning. They come across many enemies, but are always up to the challenge to duel and use their swords. Of course, there’s even a lady in distress that they must fight to rescue. The Three Musketeers has a little everything: adventure, revenge, political conflict, romance, suspense, and humor. The many pages seem to quickly fly by. Dumas wrote in newspaper installments, so each chapter leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next. I highly suggest this book for a fun read. The Three Musketeers is the first book in the d’Artagnan series.

Since I don’t read French, I researched different translations. The translations vary between 600 – 750 pages, so you need to decide which version fits closest to the original text and the style of writing you prefer. Just make sure you do not read the abridged version. I probably could have read a translation that was closer to the text, but this writing flowed for me. Movies based on this book don’t match the thrilling writing. I’m now ready to read Twenty Years After, which is the sequel to The Three Musketeers.

Book Review: Brooklyn

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Written by Colm Tóibín
Published by Scribner on January 1, 2009
Genre/Topics: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Immigration 
262 pages 

Eilis Lacey grew up in a small city in Ireland during the 1950s. She lives with her mother and beautiful older sister. A visiting Irish priest from Brooklyn, New York, offers Eilis a job. She begins her journey to America for the first time where new adventures await. She becomes a sales girl at a department store, however she desires to work in an office setting. Gradually, Eilis adjusts to her new lifestyle and suddenly finds herself in love. She’s often not sure what to include in the letters she writes home. Surprising news from home causes Eilis to second guess events in her life.

I enjoyed Brooklyn as you read about her becoming a young woman experiencing New York. The book kept my interest and there was depth to the characters. I quickly read to discover how Eilis would handle new events in her life. Unfortunately, I was sad when I finished the book so quick. I recommend this book.

Book Review: 13, rue Thérèse

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13, rue Thérèse

Written by Elena Mauli Shapiro
Published by Little, Brown and Company on February 2, 2011 
Genre/ Topics: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Time Travel, France
278 pages 

I have never read such a unique book. Trevor Stratton is an American professor who teaches in Paris. He discovers a box that contains a mixture of objects, such as letters, photos, gloves, and even a scarf. The owner of the box and objects is Louise Brunet who lives in Paris, through both world wars. It is somewhat a mystery how the objects connect and fully describe her life. Trevor keeps the box a secret and attempts to understand Louise better. Some things he’s able to piece together from the objects is that Louise had a love for a cousin, a marriage to a dependable man, and a passionate attraction to her neighbor. However, Stratton almost sets his imagination free and fills in the empty spots to create her full life. What made this book so unique is that there are actual photographs of each object. It felt as though I discovered the objects with Trevor. 13, rue Thérèse refers to the building where she lives. The book reminded me slightly of The Time Traveller’s Wife, because the book moves past to present and the reader gets both Trevor’s and Louise’s viewpoint.

The author actually found these items in a box that belonged to a real Louise Brunt. However, that is where the similarities differ because the Louise in the book is completely fictionally. In the back of the book, the reader is able to scan QR codes to discover more information and details about the objects. At times I was confused while reading the book, but the reader should just go with it. I love books that contain letters and illustrations, so this was quite an enjoyable book.




Book Review: The Chaperone

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The Chaperone 

Written by Laura Moriarty
Published by Riverhead on January 1, 2012 
Genre/ Topics: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
371 pages 

I read this book in two days, which either shows it was great or it was easy reading. I really enjoyed this book until the end. Basically, the plot is that a chaperone, Cora, travels with a young 15-year-old, Louise Brooks, to New York, for dance school. The book takes place during the 1920s and highlights women’s vote, clothing changes, prohibition, great depression, etc. Cora is a married women with two grown sons living in Kansas. She participates in society functions and follows all the ‘rules’ such as morals and how someone should dress. She travels to New York, in order to discover more about her past. Louise doesn’t enjoy following Cora’s rules and often tries to break free. Cora discovers herself more than just being the society woman, wife, and mother. Her spirit is almost awakened as she sees Louise act certain ways. Her life changes dramatically when she returns

Louise Brooks was an American dancer, model, and silent film actress.  Her film career and fame wasn’t always a success. If you’re hoping to learn more about Louise Brooks then this probably isn’t the book for you. In fact, she’s mainly in only the first third of the book. Brooks’ impact in the story is how she influenced her chaperone, Cora, during their trip to New York.

I really wasn’t pleased with the ending. Yes, Cora discovered herself while in New York, but I think it was too drastic than what probably would actually happen. There wasn’t too much character depth. The author seemed to need to include all details from this time period. Did I enjoy the book? Yes, but I didn’t love the book.

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Written by Jamie Ford 
Published by Ballantine Books on January 1, 2009
Genre/Topics: Fiction, Father/Son Relation, Love, Cultural, Historical 
290 pages 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the story of Henry who is Chinese American growing up in the 1940s in Seattle. Henry notices items taken out of the Panama Hotel that has been boarded up. The items belonged to Japanese families forced to leave to internment camps during WWII. It brings back memories to his friendship with a Japanese American girl, Keiko. Henry’s father is against anything Japanese, so Henry must keep his friendship a secret. Keiko and Henry are American but feel out of place at school, since they stand out. The book moves from the past to the present. Many years later, Henry examines items in the Panama Hotel in the hopes to discover what he’s been searching for.

I finished this book for the second time and loved it just as much as the first time. There are true aspects in the book, which the author explains. Panama Hotel actually exists and items in the basement did belong to Japanese families. The Japanese internment camps and WWII events are also true.  At times, I felt that the author tried to squeeze anything relating to Seattle, into the book. (Perhaps that’s because I live south of Seattle.) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a moving book that provides family relationships, cultural tensions, historical aspects, and even a hint of romance. I recommend this book.

Book Review: The Candle Star by Michelle Isenhoff

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The Candle Star 

Written by Michelle Isenhoff 
Published November 8, 2011 by Create Space
Ages: 10+, 168 pages 
Genre/Topics: Historical Fiction, Slavery, Pre-Civil War 

After misbehaving and tantrums, twelve year old Emily Preston travels on a train to live with her uncle in Detroit, Michigan. She’s awaken into a new world. It is 1858, and Michigan has only recently been in the Union. Her uncle, Isaac Milford, owns a small inn and he desires Emily to help. Emily is disgusted that she’s forced to clean the inn, because she believes it isn’t her job to do servant’s work. She’s a Southern Belle who has difficulties removing her gloves and beautiful gowns to clean. Emily deeply misses her home on Ella Wood plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, and plans to create mischief to be sent back. She also attends school for the first time, since previously she was tutored. Emily meets new individuals who challenge her to think differently. One individual she meets is Malachi who is the son of a black slave and challenges Emily to think that even though their skin is different colors that they both deserve freedom. At first, Emily wants nothing to do with Malachi but slowly they become friends. While at the inn, she discovers Malachi and her Uncle Isaac help set slaves free. Emily’s family owns slaves on their plantation in South Carolina, so how will she respond to these new ideas?

I thought The Candle Star was very enjoyable. It was intelligent, thought-provoking, wholesome, and provided a glance into the daily life style before the Civil War. The reader learns about chores, school, illnesses, pastimes, and social issues. The Candle Star is the first book in the Divided Decade Trilogy. The Divided Decade Trilogy takes place before the Civil War, during, and picking up the pieces after the war. Each book stands alone, so they can be read out-of-order. For a limited time, Michelle Isenhoff is providing a special coupon at Smashwords to purchase The Candle Star for only $0.99. The coupon code is SH75H. 

Please visit the author’s website or blog to learn more about her books. She also provides classroom resources to use with her books.




    Malachi shifted on the railing. “Emily, you remind me of a wild thing trapped in a cage. I know how much you miss your home. You’re drawn out here to this porch, looking away south, waiting to be set free.”

A wagon rumbled by filled with load of hay.

“You’re not the only one waiting. There are others out there, trapped like you, looking to the north, drawn by the Candle Star.” He leaned out over the railing till he could see the bright light over the roof of the hotel. “But they’re held by chains.” …

“We hurt the same. We love the same. Our only difference comes down to color. We’re like two painted houses on the same street.”

“Why are you telling me this? Why do you care so much what I think?”

“Because underneath that proud white skin you have determination and a good heart. I respect you for it and consider you my friend.”

– Michelle Isenhoff (The Candle Star)

Book Trailer:

Review: Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants

Written by Sara Gruen
Published January 1, 2006 by Algonquin Books
Genre: Fiction, 336 pages 

Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski who gives his viewpoint as a young twenty-something year old and a ninety-something year old. He describes his experience being with the Benzini Brothers Circus in the Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob is an orphan veterinary student who turns to the circus by accident. It’s the Great Depression and Jacob has nothing after a devastating car crash that left both parents dead, so he jumps upon a moving train to discover that it’s a traveling circus. Jacob meets many memorable individuals including Marlena who performs an equestrian act. Jacob falls madly in love with Marlena, yet she’s already married to a man with an evil streak. The circus seems to be going downhill, until Rosie the elephant arrives to hopefully create the next big circus act. However, Rosie doesn’t follow commands and frustrates some people who handle the situation poorly. Jacob forms a close bond with Rosie and treats her with care. Terrible incidents occur on the circus and the older Jacob doesn’t share these stories with anyone. The book moves from the past to the present as Jacob finally shares his tales. I thought Water for Elephants was an enjoyable book, but it felt rushed near the end. There were romantic aspects, since there is a growing love between Jacob and Marlena but I wouldn’t describe it as ‘chick lit’. The book highlights aspects during the Great Depression, such as the prohibition and being jobless with no hope. Throughout the book, the reader views real photographs taken from circus life mainly with the Ringling Brothers.

Water for Elephants
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese WitherspoonChristoph Waltz
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rated: PG-13 (some violence, sensuality) 
Release Date: April 22, 2011 
Running Time: 2 hours 

I actually watched the film before reading the book. The film closely matched the book. The film didn’t show the older Jacob as much as the book. There is a strong connection between Robert Pattinson as Jacob and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena. You won’t find any ‘vampire-like’ views of Robert Pattinson. There are some violent scenes with cruel animal acts and strong sensuality between Pattinson and Witherspoon. The film felt rushed as it provided information about Jacob’s life after the circus. If you enjoyed the book, you won’t be disappointed with the movie.


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Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

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The Shadow of the Wind

Written by  Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translated by Lucia Graves 
Published February 1, 2005 by Penguin 
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller 
487 pages 

I just finished reading The Shadow of the Wind for the second time and I almost forgot how wonderful the book is. The book’s first sentence hooked me: I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In 1945, Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona, Spain. He is only ten, but his life will forever change. Daniel was raised among books, since his own father is a book seller. He cannot tell anyone the secrets within the walls of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. His father tells him to pick a book to protect as his own. Daniel moves through the maze of  bookshelves until he picks his book: The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. That night Daniel falls in love with the book and desires to read more books by the author. However, Daniel cannot read anymore books written by Carax, because someone has been trying to remove the books from existence. This leads Daniel onto a literary quest to discover more about Julián Carax and why his books have suddenly disappeared.

The Shadow of the Wind is almost magical as your curiosity increases with thrills, scandals, rumors, passion, and suspense. I highly recommend this book. Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote a sequel,The Angel’s Game, that unfortunately I didn’t think matched The Shadow of the Wind. However, you’ll find reappearing characters and the story somewhat continues.

     This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens…In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind, pages 5-6)

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Book Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

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The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb 

by Melanie Benjamin

Historical Fiction, 424 pages

Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump stood at just two feet and eight inches tall, however she was a woman with a large personality. Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it. As a young child, Vinnie was sheltered and her family wanted her close at home. Vinnie had other bold thoughts when a man desired her to perform upon his river boat. Vinnie was shown as a ‘freak’ show alongside a giant woman, sword swallowing man, and other unique individuals. She realized that she didn’t want to lower her standards and be taken advantage of, so Vinnie wrote letters to the famous P. T. Barnum asking to be in his show. When P. T. Barnum and Vinnie met it was as though they were old friends who soon became successful business partners together. Vinnie married the famous Charles Stratton,  better known as Tom Thumb who also performed for P. T. Barnum. The wedding was a national sensation and all the elite individuals attended with 2,000 guests. Throughout Vinnie’s life she traveled the world, met royalty and presidents, visited the White House, encountered first hand experiences during the Civil War, and always held her head high and acted like a lady. Along the journey, P. T. Barnum often asked Vinnie to perform actions that she wasn’t happy about, such as pretending she had a baby to please the public. Numerous foster babies were used until P. T. Barnum announced that the baby ‘died’. Between chapters there are intermissions that provide short newspaper and magazine clippings about current events during that time period, such as Civil War issues, the first telegraph, electricity, and scandalous gossip.  The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb was written from Vinnie’s strong voice, but it’s not an actual autobiography. The author used references that Vinnie herself wrote. I thought this book was an enjoyable read with humorous and painful moments about a larger than life woman.

Additional Information about Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton

Here is a photo engraving at Mr. & Mrs. Charles Stratton’s wedding day on February 10, 1863. The best man was ‘Commodore Nutt’ who also performed and Vinnie’s maid of honor was her smaller sister, Minnie. The average height man is P.T. Barnum.


Book Review: The Blind Contessa’s New Machine

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The Blind Contessa’s New Machine

by Carey Wallace

Historical Fiction, 207 pages

The book took place during the nineteenth century in Italy. Contessa Carolina Fantoni was going blind, yet nobody believed not even her fiancé. The only believer was her friend, Pellegrino Turri who also turned into her lover. Turri was ten years older and married himself, yet they sneaked away to the lake house where Carolina spent so much time in her youth. Her husband basically held her captive and locked the house, because he was in fear that she wouldn’t be able to handle the outside world being blind. Turri proclaimed that he loved her and begged to run away together. Carolina attempted to write a letter, but it was a disaster because the ink spilled and she couldn’t write straight. Turri invented a typewriter for her to write letters. She was now able to freely write to family and secret messages to Turri. The story events were true, since Pellegrino Turri was often accredited for inventing the first working typewriter and carbon paper. Unfortunately, not much was known about the typewriter but some of Carolina’s letters written on the typewriter survived.

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine was interesting, because there were no chapters and it seemed almost like a whimsical tale. Books need a problem or conflict, but this book really didn’t have anything besides the fact that she was blind and had a lover. I think the only reason I finished the book was because it was so easy and fast.

Brief Information about Pellegrino Turri

Typewriter History

Carbon Copy History

Book Review: Dreams of Joy

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Dreams of Joy

by Lisa See

Historical Fiction, 354 pages

Dreams of Joy continues the story from Shanghai Girls, which I highly suggest reading first. At the end of Shanghai Girls, nineteen year old Joy learns about family secrets. Pearl, the woman she thought was her mother, was actually her aunt. Her real father, Z.G. Li who both sisters loved, still lives in Shanghai. After discovering these secrets, Joy flees to Shanghai, China, to search for her birth father and begin a life in the New Society of Red China with communism in the late 1950s.

Pearl is devastated that Joy left Los Angeles, California, and immediately plans to rescue her. Dreams of Joy switches perspectives between Pearl and Joy. Pearl confronts her past and faces challenges as she follows Joy when their paths finally do cross. China’s tragic events during this time period unfold in Dreams of Joy between the countryside to city, famine, death, and the joys in life. The book is often serious with the harsh tragedies, but family relationships and love are always present.

Book Review: Clara and Mr.Tiffany

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Clara and Mr. Tiffany

by Susan Vreeland

Historical Fiction, 432 pages

Clara and Mr. Tiffany takes place in New York City during the late 1890s. Clara Driscoll creates and designs leaded glass lampshades and stained glass windows under Louis Comfort Tiffany. Clara desires recognition, since none of the artist names are mentioned when featured at the Chicago World’s Fair or in Paris. Tiffany has a strict policy: He doesn’t hire married women. In a sense, Clara is married to Tiffany himself since she works closely with him getting creative feedback and strives to please him. She suggests the idea of  a new glass lampshade, which they keep as a secret. Clara is head of the women’s department or the ‘Tiffany Girls’. There are different men in Clara’s life, but she’s committed to her artistic aspirations and knows that if she marries she can no longer work at Tiffany’s. Throughout Clara and Mr. Tiffany there are struggles between the men’s and women’s department. The women’s work isn’t always appreciated and they’re not in a union. Eventually, Clara must decide who she’s most devoted to. The book highlights New York City changes with skyscrapers being built and the subway. At times, I thought the book was slow. Often, I wanted to shake Clara since she was so attached to Tiffany. The book was enjoyable and I gave it four stars. Clara Driscoll’s life is highlighted with more details in the afterword.