Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: Between Shades of Gray

I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and was looking forward to picking up her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. This book, a YA historical fiction tale, was the winner of July’s Choose My Next Read vote, so thank you to everyone who participated and stay tuned for August’s vote later this week!

betweenshadesofgrayAbout the book: Lina is at home in Lithuania with her mother and small brother when the family is forcibly deported by Soviets. Lina’s father is already missing, so when the rest of the family arrives at the train station amidst a crowd of deportees, she goes looking for him. The men are not going to the same place as the women and children and infirm, so Lina must use her artistic drawings and trust the passing hands of strangers to convey messages to her absent father concerning the family’s whereabouts. Conditions in the train car are awful, but they’re nothing compared to the inhumane treatment Lina and her family find in the labor camps. Eventually they land in Siberia, where they must build their own winter-proof huts out of scraps while the Soviet officers enjoy warmth and fresh food from their bakery. Lina and her family fight for survival for themselves and the other members of their group, knowing that their chances are better if they can only make it through the first sunless Siberian winter.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen…but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”

About the layout: Between Shades of Gray is told in the first person, from Lina’s perspective. The chapters are short and easily readable, despite occasionally gruesome subject matter. There are also sections within the chapters that reflect Lina’s memories prior to her deportation.

The memories felt unnecessary to me. They don’t further the plot, and the characterization they show could be gained from Lina’s present story line, except maybe in the case of Lina’s father’s past “crimes.” Yet even those I felt could be described from the present, and nothing would be lost. Some may argue that it’s touching to compare Lina’s life before and after the war, but it felt so… expected. Of course Lina had a beautiful, innocent life with innocent troubles before the war. She was a young girl with hopes and dreams–and I would have felt the same about her past without seeing those memories. I kept looking for something in this book to surprise me, but the memories were not that something.

“It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”

Between Shades of Gray is certainly emotional, but the emotion also feels obvious. Of course there were horrors against humanity in WWII. Of course people experienced unspeakable atrocities, and of course when we’re given a chance to look at their lives individually it’s all tragic. That aspect of the book did not surprise me at all, either. I was expecting sad deaths and unfair living conditions, so their appearance was not shocking, and I was still looking for something surprising to drive the story beyond the expected.

This is a story in which things happen to the characters more often than the characters are in control of their own actions. Lina does what she’s told. She doesn’t like it, but she wants to survive. Occasionally she draws to help create a record and to spread news to her father of her whereabouts, but those moments are quick and sparse and don’t give the story much forward motion. Sometimes Lina defies orders by stealing or sneaking away from where she’s supposed to be, but again, they’re small moments that contribute to small episodes of action and add little to the main narrative. Perhaps one could argue that the main plot thread involves Lina’s family trying to find and reunite with Lina’s father, but other than asking for news from strangers and sending out clues of their lives through more strangers, there’s nothing there to go on. Thus, the book lacks plot, motivation, and character action, and without those things there’s less tension except in small, episodic increments.

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”

One thing Sepetys does particularly well is to humanize the “bad guys.” The bald man in Lina’s group who is obsessed with death annoys and frightens everyone, but Sepetys will warm hearts to him in the end. The German soldier who grates on Lina’s nerves also has a story that blurs the line between villain and victim. The rude woman Lina’s family lives with at their first labor camp has a surprise in store when it comes time to say goodbye. The good guys hide their sacrifices and the bad guys are better than meets the eye. Lina’s mother is especially interesting. It would’ve been interesting to see some of this book through her perspective, behind the brave face she puts on for her children. Somehow she knows who to be kind to, how to stretch her resources, and how to put the difficulties of a situation aside.

This is a suitable book for young YA readers, as the horrors of war are related as morals rather than gory scenes.

“There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I gave them the same rating, I think if it came to a choice I would say I preferred Salt to the Sea over this novel. There are some similarities, but the switching between character perspectives in Salt to the Sea and the climax of that story involving the naval disaster gave that book more momentum. I did feel that Between Shades of Gray was an emotional and worthwhile read, and I know Sepetys has a lesser-known novel that I may be interested in reading in the future, but overall I think I’m learning that YA historical fiction is not my favorite thing. It’s a little too transparent for my taste.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a great follow-up. I would recommend reading Salt to the Sea second, because there are some related characters with a small continuing plot thread that would be easier to pick up in publication order. This novel also emphasizes Sepetys’ skill at proving no one is who they seem; every character has a private story that makes them so much more than their role in WWII.
  2. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another obvious but worthwhile suggestion for Sepetys fans. The Book Thief is also YA historical fiction focused on WWII, but takes place in Germany, focusing on a poor family who must pretend to believe what they don’t in order to survive Hitler’s changes in the country.

What’s next: I’m currently rereading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and I will definitely have a review up for that within the month, but it is kind of long and a reread so I may pick up another undetermined book from my July TBR to read at the same time, in which case there would be another review before that one.


The Literary Elephant


Choose My Next Read: Round 2

It’s that time of the month again–time to plan next month’s TBR! And, like last month (and basically every month), I have too many choices. Please help me choose! Below are five books from my own shelves that fall under a common category. I do plan to read them all eventually, but these are five choices that I’m specifically considering for July, and I’ll leave the choice of selection up to your vote.

The category: Historical Fiction.

The books:

  1. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. A Lithuanian girl and several of her family members are taken by Soviets to a cold Siberian labor camp in 1941, where they must fight for survival. The girl is an artist who wants to use her drawings to convey her story to her father, who has been separated from the family and taken to another prison camp. (YA)
  2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Three women with disparate histories become unlikely friends in 1962 Mississippi. The three embark on a difficult and controversial project that promises to help them break the barriers of their town and era.
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Two sisters convene in France as the second world war strikes and one woman’s husband is sent off to fight. The two women must stand together through the frightening challenges of life in the 1940s, resisting the horrors of the war and learning anew the meaning of family.
  4. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. In late 17th century Amsterdam, a newly wedded woman is presented with a miniature version of her new house as a wedding gift–which she must furnish with the help of an artist who portrays unexpected truths in his tiny versions of the real-life setting at the unwelcoming home.
  5. Mischling by Affinity Konar. Twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz in 1944. As part of the Mengele’s Zoo experiment which holds special privileges and horrors for twins, the girls struggle to keep their bond and find companionship among the other child duos. Their separation marks the beginning of a hopeful but terrifying quest for the sister left behind.


The rules: please vote by commenting below for one of these five titles that you’d like to see me review in the upcoming month. All votes will count until Friday, June 23rd, 10 pm US Central Time. (This month, however, if I end up with a tie, I will be dropping the competing titles into a cup and choosing one winner randomly from the tied choices with the most votes.)

The purpose: I have a weakness for borrowing books even though I have plenty of unread titles on my own shelves. Although I am making a dent this year, I’m an indecisive creature and the choices are becoming overwhelming. I’m trying to eliminate unread books from my shelves, but I hardly know where to start at this point. Also, I’d love some input from you, my readers, concerning the types and titles of books that you’re interested in seeing me review. Choosing a category I feel in the mood to read helps dispel the chaos, but I’m at a loss to figure out how to narrow the choices further because they all just sound so darn good. I’d be happy to read any of these choices in July, and with your help, I will actually be reading one of them rather than staring at them indecisively! To anyone who has ever been unable to choose which book to read next, please, I beg you, vote below…

May the best title win!


The Literary Elephant

Review: My Lady Jane

I’ve just finished reading the fantasy/historical fiction novel My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I picked this one up on a bit of a whim, and sometimes those whim-reads pack a lot of surprise power. Here’s what I encountered:

About the book: Lady Jane Grey, cousinmyladyjane and close friend to young King Edward VI, has just been engaged to Gifford Dudley, against her will and wishes. For Edward, the marriage is part of a political plot. For Jane, it’s the upheaval of her entire book-filled life. For Gifford Dudley, the prospect of a wife just means he’ll have one more person to disappoint with his horse curse–that’s right, he spends every day from sunup to sundown as a horse; he can’t control it. And Gifford’s not the only one. In the midst of some historically accurate events orchestrated by real historical figures, My Lady Jane is also a fantasy novel in which some of the characters have the ability to transform into animals. Some, like Gifford, are unable to control the change. On top of the expected political intrigue–Edward VI facing the end of his reign and the necessity of choosing his successor–there’s also the battle between ordinary humans and the humans who possess an animal form. Neither trusts the other. And Jane is about to marry one. She’s also about to be appointed the Queen of England, though she’s not given any choice about that either. But there’s usurping Mary to contend with, and royal poisoners, and a whole slew of helpful and wacky animals. Plus, of course, a love story or two.

“Do any of us have a choice where destiny is concerned?”

About the layout: My Lady Jane is divided into alternating sections all from a third person perspective focusing on Jane, Gifford, and Edward individually in turn. Each character is distinct and interesting for their own reasons, but the narrators are also worth mentioning here. One of the best things about this book is its treatment of time. The story is told in the past tense, but every now and then our narrators interject to announce that a certain turn of phrase or perspective is something familiar from more modern times. Our narrators provide brief history lessons when they pertain to the story, adopt language that would have been more likely in use with the setting of the story, and even go so far as to label parts one and two as sections where history is being tweaked and then being thrown out the window entirely. They are modern narrators, to guide the modern reader and pull the story into understandable frames of reference without ever quite letting go of the past entirely. The balance is perfect–enough fact to gender further interest in the subject without fooling the reader into thinking this is a history book. The animal magic ensures that the reader never forgets there’s plenty of fiction involved here, and also adds a lot of fun and a whole world of possibilities to what is, in history books, a tragic tale of early deaths.

“You just don’t understand politics. Have you learned nothing? Everyone involved in the running of a kingdom deserves to die at some point. It’s how the game is played. You win or you die.”

One thing I do find odd about the way the chapters worked in My Lady Jane is the passage of time. Some chapters pick up right where the last one left off, but others have gaps of whole days mostly unaccounted for. Sometimes some detail from the missing time is added in retrospect, but other times a chapter leaves off with a bit of tension and the next one starts with the right character to answer the reader’s questions, but the character is already in some new predicament. In the end, all the vital information is included, but I would say that the transitions through time feel clunky at times.

But, I must say, I especially love the animal transformations. I love that they’re always unexpected animals, funny and surprisingly helpful for their comical underimpressiveness. Sometimes a powerful character turns out to also be a lion, and sometimes they turn out to be a skunk. Although I didn’t laugh out loud as many times as I’d been led to believe I would, I did find the entire premise and many of the details completely hilarious.

But then, on the other hand, there are statements like this:

“Just because we’re girls doesn’t mean you have to coddle us… The truth is, you need us.”

Which is great. Obviously the girls are necessary and don’t need to be coddled. One important thing that modern literature is doing–especially YA–is putting females in positions of power. There are so many female protagonists now who are strong and smart and ready to rule the world. I love that women are being better represented and respected in books, but in stories set in the 1500s that sort of kickass female lead is a little out of place. I’m glad we live in the sort of world now where a character like Edward can learn that girls are just as capable of ruling a country as men, but it also makes My Lady Jane feel even farther from the truth. Women do not have a lot of rights in the 1500s, and it’s not just the law holding them back, but the men who make the laws and believe that women are inferior. Our main characters in My Lady Jane don’t seem to believe that women are inferior. I’m glad things have changed, but I don’t believe that the way to equality is to pretend that women were not overlooked. This is just a personal opinion about not forgetting the past. Obviously My Lady Jane is fictionalized enough that readers can’t mistake it for a true account, which helped me take the surprisingly understanding and respectful young men of this novel in stride. I wish history really did have more young men like Edward and Gifford recorded in its many books.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wasn’t sure in the first few chapters if I was going to like it, and YA historical fiction tends to be pretty hit-or-miss for me, but this one turned out to be a hit. That may have something to do with the fact that it’s very loosely based on history and much more involved with a magical fantasy element, so it reads more like fiction and makes a tragic tale funny instead. I will absolutely be picking up the next book in this series of historical Janes when it comes out next year.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like historical/magical retellings with strengthened female characters and an intriguing glimpse into the distant past, check out Meg Cabot’s Avalon High. This one is a stand-alone novel of King Arthur reincarnations in modern times, and is one of my favorite YA books.
  2. If you’ve already read My Lady Jane and are (impatiently) awaiting the next volume in this series, get your hands on a copy of Jane Eyre to prepare. While I went into My Lady Jane without much background knowledge of the real Jane Grey and I would suspect that it will be easy to continue on without researching the upcoming Janes, I do think it adds an extra layer of intrigue to be able to compare different versions of the same story, and I think Jane Eyre is always worth the read.

What’s next: I wanted to be reading ACOWAR this week, and it still might be a possibility to get started on it by the end of the week because my copy is on its way, but it still hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m starting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in the meantime. This suburban mystery/thriller has been all the hype lately, but I’m in it for the Desperate Housewives vibes. That show is surprisingly addicting in the early seasons, and I’m kind of hoping for a similar dose of that here, in book form, before I check out the new TV show.

Have you been reading any of the great new releases out this month?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Salt to the Sea

I usually watch Titanic every April, around the time of the the famous shipwreck’s anniversary. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I find shipwrecks tragically fascinating. But this year, instead of watching Titanic, I decided to do something a little different and read about the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in Ruta Sepetys’ latest YA historical fiction novel, Salt to the Sea.

FullSizeRender (17)About the book: Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, searching for her mother, the only family she has left. Florian is a Prussian artist, running from the secret crimes that he didn’t know he was assisting. Emilia is an orphaned Polish girl with a sad past and someone who will depend on her in the future. Florian’s injuries–both real and fabricated–will require Joana’s assistance, and Emilia refuses to leave the side of the boy (Florian) who saved her from a Russian soldier, so the three stick together in an (at first) illegal evacuation group traveling to Prussia’s coast in 1945 in hopes of boarding a ship to safer land. Alfred is a self-involved German soldier tasked with helping to prepare the MV Wilhelm Gustloff for imminent departure of evacuees–including the three teens who’ve met on the road. Circumstances and personal motivations keep these four main characters’ fates connected as they each battle with secrets from their pasts and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

About the layout: Salt to the Sea is narrated in brief, alternating sections from our four main characters’ points of view. Usually I am drawn to short chapters and alternating perspectives, but something about the layout of this book didn’t quite work for me. The story actually takes place over a relatively short span of time, only a few days, and we see much of that time from each character’s view. The good thing about Sepetys’ alternating sections is that they never feel like backtracking. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a new character’s section goes back to the beginning of the last character’s section and tells the same thing with a different set of eyes, which is not the case with this book. But many of Sepetys’ sections had similar statements, hitting the same mysterious past incidents and giving the same sense of ominous foreshadowing as the sections before it. The reader understands early on that each character has a secret, and that each will face catastrophe before the end of the book. I don’t mind piecing together these events little by little with the narrators. What I do mind is being reminded repeatedly that there are things I don’t know at times when answers are not being provided. To put it simply, I thought there were too many hints when there could simply have been more narration. Perhaps longer sections would have helped keep the narration more grounded in the present.

On the other side of that argument, though, I would like to acknowledge that I did appreciate the background information on what had already happened and was currently happening with the war. Usually I don’t like being informed so blatantly of details that the characters know without thinking–it feels inauthentic for them to explain things they already know, like they’re talking down to the reader. (Consider a story about your own life taking place right now, but being read 70 years in the future. While those readers might appreciate a bit of background about what type of cell phone you’re using and how it works, it’s not something your character would otherwise need to describe in detail because it’s a ubiquitous part of life in 2017.) But here, the characters talk or think about real historical events and concerns in ways that also reveal something about themselves or their experiences, rather than simply stating facts in a way that would alienates the reader from the story. Salt to the Sea is firmly a fictional narrative, and never feels like a dry history book of logistics and statistics.

About the characters: Each of the four characters is given equal importance in this book, due to the fact that they each have their own sad stories to reveal and also because each of their present stories revolves around the other characters, keeping everyone in play. Although Alfred is not exactly part of the group, he is perhaps the most intriguing character. He’s a Hitler supporter entirely, often dropping comments that would be easy to hate him for if he wasn’t also so tragic and funny. He’s been sheltered and misguided, led astray by privilege and protective parents, and is pitiable rather than someone to loathe because he doesn’t understand the wrongness of his thoughts and actions. His compelling creepiness more than makes up for the part of the book in which he has no contact with the other characters.

Good or evil, hopeful or hopeless, Sepetys links the reader to each character’s storyline just in time for death and destruction to hit. The catastrophe on the over-crowded ship hits especially hard because the reader is invested in the lives on board. And that is precisely what gives the book its powerful impact. It’s at this point that the reader remembers this is a real event being fictionalized, there were thousands of real lives, each with their own stories like Florian, Joana, Emilia, and Alfred have theirs, and all in peril. The reader is compelled onward not only for the sake of the four main characters, but to learn what became of this little-known WWII tragedy.

“How do you defend yourself against the prolonged, insufferable agony of knowing you will surrender to the sea?”


About the ending: this is a book that had to hit just the right number of main character fatalities. If everyone died, the story wouldn’t land quite right. If everyone lived, the story would seem completely unrealistic and as though it were making light of what it was acknowledging as a truly awful disaster. I am pleased to announce that Sepetys found the perfect balance of loss and hope with the ending of this book, not only with the outcome on the sea, but what would happen later regarding these characters. I found the last chapter particularly satisfying.

“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or sky.” 

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Tales of shipwreck are, for some reason, particularly appealing to me. I like to grieve them. And yet… it took a long time for this book to feel like it was really pulling me forward into the sinking. Maybe it’s something about YA historical fiction, but for some reason I never have quite as strong a reaction to it as I hope going in. Still, I liked this book enough to add Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray to my list, as well.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a great YA historical fiction about WWII. This one follows a young girl in Germany who wants to be able to read, and her troubled but mostly kind caretakers; the story is narrated by Death, which is what sold me on this one.
  2. Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key is an emotional tale of two siblings in WWII and what became of them. This one’s written for adults but features the story of children when the war reached France, giving it the dual perspectives of youth in the war and wiser reflection in the aftermath.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can, a Gilmore Girls and acting career memoir. I’ve heard the audiobook is good, but I’m glad I read a physical copy. Stay tuned to find out why, and whether this one’s worth the read no matter the medium.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last Days of Night

Did Thomas Edison actually invent the light bulb? The late 1800s were an incredible time of creation and establishment in America, and Graham Moore’s new historical fiction novel, The Last Days of Night, is a perfect way to explore the big names and excitements of that time.

thelastdaysofnightAbout the book: Many an inventor in the late 1800’s knew the impossible challenges of competing against Thomas Edison and his new system of mass production for ideas and inventions. One such competitor, George Westinghouse, even knew the difficulties of being faced with a one-billion-dollar law suit from Edison, known popularly as “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” The patent war, the electrical current war, the unprecedented shock of such an expensive law suit–all of these factors ruled Westinghouse’s life and business in 1888 as New York–and the rest of the country–slowly lit from top to bottom with new electrical lights. Westinghouse may have generated better ideas, ideas more suited to mass market, and yet Edison held the legal claim on the light bulb. Westinghouse hired Cravath, a young lawyer straight out of Columbia Law, to defend his right to produce his own electric lights. Cravath, though inexperienced, is a crafty lawyer who takes his one case so seriously that he faces public humiliation, bankruptcy, spies, death, expulsion from his law firm, the loss of the woman he loves, and much more, all to win the biggest law suit in American history.

“All stories are love stories.  Paul remembered someone famous saying that. Thomas Edison’s would be no exception. All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.”

There is something incredible about reading the names of real historical giants in a fictional work and seeing them navigate the world an author has created. Thomas Edison is a name nearly everyone in America has heard, but to me, at least, he has always been a ghostly figure, larger than life and frozen in black and white like the photographs that depict him. In The Last Days of Night, I had the chance to imagine him as a living, breathing person–to understand his motivations, to overhear his conversations, and consider him as a human who, like the rest of us, experiences triumphs but also failures. Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and Cravath are all people who’ve made a significant impact on America, and this book allows readers to view them as characters who struggle and strive like the rest of us.

” ‘A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.’ -Alexander Graham Bell”

In The Last Days of Night, the 3rd person narration follows new lawyer Paul as he becomes more and more immersed in the Edison v. Westinghouse case, and tries to add another client to his list, the charming Agnes Huntington who seems to like the eccentric foreign inventor Nikola Tesla more than Paul. She helps Paul care for the unusual scientist, and to chase him back to Westinghouse’s engineering team to design a light bulb that won’t infringe on Edison’s patent if they lose the case. Edison, however, proves himself resourceful as he sets out to thwart all of Paul’s plans toward progress, and finds no room for morality in his endeavors to win at all costs. Paul begins the novel with very little knowledge of electricity and its workings, allowing the reader to refresh his or her memory of the science behind the light bulb or learn the information for the first time along with Paul. He’s crafty, but he’s fresh out of school and inexperienced, which makes him an ideal guide for the reader who knows little about the birth of electricity and the modern law system, and an amusing one for the reader with a firmer grasp on the history. The wide range of emotions and motivations between the three main scientists in this book give the reader a broad view of this occupation in the 1880’s, and builds an intriguing cast of unique characters each with their own strong ideals.

” ‘Be alone–that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.’ -Nikola Tesla”

The Last Days of Night contains a little of everything–science, arson, romance, family drama, friendship, legal intrigue, financial intrigue, political intrigue, and, of course, a plethora of history. The short chapters and their piquing titles keep readers turning pages. At the beginning of each chapter the reader also finds a quote from a prominent historical figure that hints at the content within (see the accredited quotes above). Although it’s fictional, this book reads like a a fun history of electrical science for the layperson. It won’t teach you how to build your own circuit or light bulbs, but it informs the reader of controversial origins and incites hours of interest in the simple statement that many people stop at: “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.” A lot more effort lies behind that single sentence than the words seem to imply.

” ‘This is what science is, Mr. Cravath. This is what discovery is. It’s not a flash of color. It’s not a moment of divine inspiration. It is not the hand of God reaching down to press the pointed finger. It’s work. It’s drudgery. It is trying ten thousand different shapes of bulb. Then trying ten thousand different air fillings. Then, yes, ten thousand different filaments. It is realizing that those are the three components that matter and then trying ten thousand times ten thousand times ten thousand combinations until one of them works.’ [-Thomas Edison]”

The only fault I could find in this book was the pacing that ran a little slowly at times. Historical fiction generally takes me a little longer to read, and I began  The Last Days of Night anticipating that it would take me a little longer than my last book, and that it would probably be dense. Fortunately, it did not seem dense at all, and much of the story was thrilling enough to read quickly and easily. I would not, however, call this book a thriller, and there were a few instances where the action and intrigue lagged a bit. The tension, however, is constantly growing, and keeps the reader pressing onward to discover how the plot threads will come together at the story’s end.

“Stories reach conclusions, and then they go away. Such is their desperately needed magic.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For some reason, I find this time period fascinating to read about. America has been its own country for over a hundred years by the last couple decades of the 1800s, but it feels like the time when the modern nation was established; ways of life were still distinctly different from our current habits, but not so dissimilar and strange that it’s impossible to picture what it would have been like to live there. I’m only mildly interested in science, and even less interested in law, but this book kept me engaged with the story from start to finish. I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed learning more about Edison and Tesla, and even men I’d never heard of, like Westinghouse and Cravath. It didn’t impress me quite as much as other books I’ve read from this time period, but some of the reveals toward the end of the story would make an eventual reread interesting, and I’m glad I finally picked it up for this first read. Anyone interested in American history–even just a little–should read this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night and are interested in learning more about this time period, pick up The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. This one’s a nonfiction book that reads like fiction and focuses on the construction of the World’s Fair exhibition on Chicago in 1893. The narration alternates between the architect of “the White City” and a serial killer who takes advantage of  Chicago’s anonymity and its influx of travelers who’ve been reeled in by the World’s Fair.
  2. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night but want something even more fictionalized from this time period, try Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. This one is also set in New York in the early 1890’s, but its purpose is aimed toward lending a sense of the city’s character and the oddities of the time. The novel features an experienced member of a Coney Island side show, an impoverished street cleaner who finds an abandoned baby, a patient who’s been forced into an insane asylum that no one ever leaves, and a whole lot more. It’s a wild ride through the darker sides of the city. You can find my complete review of this book here.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. This one’s also a bit historical, though it’s only set as far back as 1999, but that year is perfect for the e-mail monitoring man who’s a little lost in his own life and a little caught up in reading about his beautiful coworker’s. This is a romance novel, my first Rowell read, and so far it’s been a fun experience. My full review for this book will be posted shortly.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Revenant

I’ve been so busy that reading this book–this short book that I enjoyed–felt like a battle. Which is fitting for Michael Punke’s The Revenant, a historical fiction book about one man’s battle for survival against man and nature in the historical American westward expansion.

About the book: Hugh Glass has had an adventurous life, consorting–not always therevenantby choice–with noblemen, sailors, pirates, and Indians; but nothing could have prepared him for his fateful trip along the Grand River in 1823 with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. When Glass is brutally mauled by a protective mother grizzly bear, his fur trapping companions assume he’ll die of his wounds. For a few days, the company carries his ailing body along their route, but it’s imperative that they reach shelter before winter settles in, and Glass is slowing them down. The captain decides to leave two men with Glass until his death, to provide him humane treatment in his final days and a decent burial. The two men, however, have other ideas about what to do with Glass. Impatient to rejoin their crew and greedy for Glass’s extraordinary rifle, they take Glass’s belongings and leave him to die alone in the wilderness. A slowly healing Glass fights for survival and revenge with few tools beyond his sheer determination, intent on retrieving his prized rifle and ending the lives of the men who left him ill and defenseless. With a little luck and a lot of skill, the injured Glass sets out to traverse hundreds of miles of wilderness in the name of revenge.

“Still, he thought, there was no luck at all in standing still. The next morning he would crawl forward again. If luck wouldn’t find him, he would do his best to make his own.”

I used to believe that wilderness survival stories were very similar–if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Food is a problem. Fire is a problem. Shelter is a problem. And the main character is always alone. As a consequence, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this sort of book, and I was surprised by how immediately and thoroughly I became immersed in Glass’s tale.

One of the biggest draws of The Revenant for me is the addition of extra characters. Glass is often alone and even when he’s not he keeps his story and his opinions largely to himself, but there are enough additional characters and groups of people in this book that politics come into play, and the reader becomes invested in the fate of more than one person. Death and disaster become real, worrisome enemies in a way that single-character survival stories struggle to convey because here, while one character manages to keep them at bay, his friends and enemies do not. Furthermore, the inclusion of other prominent characters allows this book to remain in man-vs-man territory, rather than succumbing entirely to the man-vs-nature battles that often fill wilderness stories. Glass is prepared for the wilderness. Survival is a struggle, but it’s not his main goal. The Revenant is truly, primarily, a novel of revenge.

“Having crawled toward this moment for a hundred days, the prospect of vengeance was now immediate, the power to consummate requiring no more than the gentle squeeze of a trigger. Yet a mere bullet seemed too intangible to express his rage, an abstraction at a moment craving the satisfaction of flesh against flesh.”

The blended feel of fiction and nonfiction in this novel is what fascinates me the most. I hadn’t realized before I began reading that The Revenant is based on true events, and many of the other elements–the setting, the fur companies, the big events–have a basis in reality that gives the book a very life-like feel. The combination of fiction and nonfiction is a phenomenon that always piques my interest–I like to believe that neither can truly exist without the other, but also that the line between them is often blurred. I felt like  I was learning something about America’s history while I read this book, but it didn’t seem even remotely like a textbook. Punke navigated the line between truth and fantastic speculation with a masterful eye for selective detail and entertainment value. The craziest aspects of the story are lent credibility by the link to truth, which is an element that gives a survival story more punch every time.

“Through the long morning, Glass’s body fought against the infection of his wounds. He slipped between consciousness, unconsciousness, and a confusing state in between, aware of his surroundings like random pages of a book, scattered glimpses of a story with no continuity to bind them. When conscious, he wished desperately to sleep again, if only to gain respite from the pain. Yet each interlude of sleep came with a haunting precursor–the terrifying thought that he might never wake up again. Is this what it’s like to die?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I grew up in the Midwest and took a drive through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota this fall, so the historical setting of the Westward expansion through a part of America that is reasonably familiar to me was especially intriguing. Also, I couldn’t help picturing Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, even though I specifically set out to read the book before watching the movie to avoid having the visuals cloud my impressions of the novel–but Glass did seem a perfect role for DiCaprio, and I think with as many times as I had to pick up this book and set it back down it was actually helpful to have a few ideas about it already in place. As far as wilderness survival stories go, this one has probably been my favorite, but now that I’ve read one it’ll probably be years again before I feel the need to pick up another.

Further recommendations:

  1. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a nonfiction book about a serial killer and the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800’s. This one, although not a fictional novel, reads like fiction, immersing readers in a grand but precarious world on the cusp of greatness, but also pinned under the watchful eye of a monster. If you like Punke’s writing style, try Larson’s.
  2. If you like historical fiction set in the 1800’s, pick up my personal favorite, the classic Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel. Although the battles in this book have more to do with war and the trappings of society than abandonment in the wilderness, it is a novel about survival and the nature of man (and woman).

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Colleen Hoover’s newest release, It Ends With Us, which is a romance novel that also features perspectives on homelessness and domestic abuse. I’ll have a review posted for this one soon, as well.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Paying Guests

July is almost over, but the books go on and on. Anyone else feel like their TBR is impossibly long? I’m afraid I won’t get to them all before I die. But I’m forging ahead, and now I can cross a book by Sarah Waters off my list–The Paying Guests.


I had such an odd experience with this book. When I came across the title online, I read the blurb and was so excited to check out this historical fiction book that I took it home from the library almost immediately. But for some reason, between getting it home and opening the cover a few days later, I wasn’t so eager. I read about 20 pages the first day just to get a feel for it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the writing drew me in and how quickly I was getting through it. But the next 300 pages drug on and on. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish, but when I reached Part 3, the pace changed entirely, almost as if it were a whole new story. I thought I was coming around to love it after all–but then the ending disappointed, and still I’m left with mixed opinions.

About the book: The first World War has just ended, leaving Frances and her mother alone in their prestigious (but slowly crumbling) London home in the 1920’s. The men of the family have died, the women have little money left, the maid has been let go, and Frances feels it is her duty to stay on and look after her mother and the house–their home and reputation as upper-class women the only things they have left. All of Frances’ time is devoted to cleaning and repairing things around the house, a shabby life her mother is embarrassed by, but Frances doesn’t mind the grubby chores. What she does mind is the life of possibilities she’s given up to be there, and how narrow her world has become. When the money can’t be stretched any further, Frances and her mother must stoop to the necessity of renting out the rooms on the upper floor to a couple of “paying guests,” or “lodgers,” the only polite way to refer to the situation. Both Frances and her mother are wary of sharing their home with strangers, but the Barbers seem friendly enough. What begins as politeness develops into cautious friendship, and even romance. The devotion is severely tested, however, when a criminal case ties Frances and Mrs. Barber together, but also muddles the purity of their relationship. Frances must consider her past choices, her options for the future, and her very essence and conscience:

“Braving the tilt of the bed, she carefully lowered herself back down. But there was no ease, no relief, to be found in any position; no possibility of escape from herself.”

Death always leaves people reevaluating their lives. It makes them do strange or crazy things. Frances is a highly introspective character who gives miles of depth to every word and gesture. She is the voice of reason when it seems everything has been derailed, and even through the confusion of a complicated death she can find rationale and restore order:

“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response. You know that, don’t you?”

The most interesting aspect of this book for me was its division into three parts. Each one is so distinct and has its own close focus. The first: a bit of history–how Frances’ family is coping with the aftermath of the war, how they live, who they are, what they must do to survive. The second: a romance–Frances finds she has a crush on Lilian Barber, and though she tries to pass it off as a friendship, Lilian surprises her by acting as though she returns the affection. The third: a murder, a bit of mystery, a fast-paced police inquiry that leads to a trial. There’s no break in the story between the sections, so even though the switch seemed drastic, it wasn’t jarring or annoying. And one thing remained constant through each part–Frances’ fascination with Lilian. The progression of their relationship is the main point of the story, and it certainly has its ups and downs to keep the reader guessing. With Frances as our narrator, the reader has a clear sense of her personality and trustworthiness, but Lilian is quite another character. Even though we see Lilian through Frances’ skewed and loving perspective, Lilian’s words and mannerisms come across as odd and sometimes suspicious. She brings out all sorts of emotions in Frances:

“Would she return to her old life, her loveless, Lilianless life, like a snake having to fit itself back into a desiccated skin? The idea made her panic, and the panic itself dismayed her. For was that all, she though bleakly, that love ever was? Something that saved one from loneliness? A sort of insurance policy against not counting? How real was the passion she had with Lilian, after all?”

Worst part: the plot lags at points. It becomes so bogged down with Frances’ repetitive worries and the minutia of life on Champion Hill that I did believe the book could be written to the same–or even better–effect, with a careful culling equivalent of maybe a hundred pages. That being said…

Best part: The language of this book is so beautiful. Even at the slowest parts of the plot when I debated shelving the book until I was ready to try again, the language drew me in. There are so many marvelous metaphors, and Frances’ commentary on life and morals as a woman in the 1920s is adept and intriguing. Descriptions of people, places, and even objects are captivating and undeniably entertaining. The range of Frances’ emotions in The Paying Guests takes the language from light to dark and everything in between. The comparisons are superb:

“The walk took her to another set of padded benches, with a lot of unhappy-looking people on them, also nibbling at sandwiches. She realised that the people had come from another court, with another trial going on in it, with its own judge, its own jury, its own clerks and barristers; and that there was another court beyond that. And she had a vision of the building with its veined marble walls as a sort of stone monster into which crimes, guilts, griefs were continually being fed, in which they were even now being digested, and from which all too soon they would be revoltingly expelled.”

About the ending: The finale fell a little flat. Throughout the book, Frances struck me as the kind of character who was not afraid of taking chances and acting on her impulses, but then she became so determined just to “wait and see.” The end of the trial had Frances poised for all kinds of life changes, and the reader is left with the impression that she does intend to pursue the lifestyle she wanted, but that’s not shown. Frances does very little at the end of the book, which disappointed me both in terms of where the plot could have gone for maximum effect, and of Frances’ bravery diminishing when she seemed to have so much potential to stand up for herself and try to make right the things that she thought had gone wrong. I did appreciate that the reader was left with the possibility of a hopeful future for Frances, but frankly, after so much suspense surrounding the death in this book, I thought it wrapped up a little too conveniently. thepayingguests2

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not that I disliked this book, I just didn’t like it, either. I am glad I read it; it’s a unique and interesting book, but even while I was glad I’d given it a fair chance, I was also annoyed that I put off new books from my July book haul to finish this library book now. The slowness of the plot–despite its solidity–detracted from the experience for me, but the writing style made up for that. If the ending had been as impressive as I was hoping, I’d have liked the book more overall. It wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t the book for me. I’d love to hear how other readers deal with books they just don’t love as much as they expected–do you finish? Do you quit in the middle? Does anyone else feel bad leaving a book half-read?

Further Recommendations:

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt would be great if you like the idea of reading about a character who knows more about a suspicious death that he/she admits. Ordinary details of dealing with death become haunting when one may have been closely involved with the death and/or the killer(s). To learn more, check out my review of The Secret History here.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would be a great choice if you’re interested in a faster-paced version of a mysterious London death. This one uses a more modern setting, but again the death hits close to home for the main character and she’s involved in the investigation. To learn more, check out my review of The Girl on the Train here.

Coming up next: Stay tuned for a review of Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood. Main character Nora is staying deep in the woods with friends she quickly realizes are all but strangers, but she’s stuck with them as they discover they are not alone in the woods. When she wakes up, all she can remember is that someone is dead. Until then,

Try to avoid murders. They’re always messy, in one way or another.

The Literary Elephant