Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Historically, reading...

I've been on a reading jag. (As a result my DVR is almost 75% full. Yikes!) This happens from time to time and is usually because I've started a really fabulous book. While I read almost anything under the sun, I've hit on a couple of really great historical novels lately...neither are new releases, but they're new to me, so there you go. For really great book reviews, go visit Heather J. at Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies
~by Harry Turtledove

The basic premise is "What if the Nazis won the war?" Not a unique pastiche, many people have played this "What if" game. Turtledove does it splendidly though. You follow the members of a secretly Jewish family, the Gimpels, and their Jewish and non-Jewish friends as they navigate the changes that follow a new Fuhrer being named to the head of the German Empire.

What I liked:
I liked Turtledove's imagination concerning how the world would be different at the beginning of the 21st Century. At times it was eerily chilling: After the 3rd World War in which the Nazis used nuclear bombs on Washington, DC and Philadelphia, Omaha became the new capital, the destroyed Liberty Bell was in Berlin on display, but sealed to protect from radiation.

I also liked the different perspectives through which Turtledove tells his story. From children in school, to Heinrich and Walther who work in the heart of the Reich, to an outspoken English professor, Susanna, the secret story of Jews in this strange new world is fascinating and at times heart-wrenching.

What I didn't like:
Very little. I thought at times Turtledove's writing mechanics were a bit elementary and maybe a bit awkward, and I didn't like the longer, somewhat laborious descriptions of playing bridge with their Aryan friends. I also was waiting for deeper emotional conflict/turmoil between the leading characters, but didn't feel like it ever came even after certain members of the family were arrested by the Nazis. But, overall, it was worth my time to read through to the end.

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.
~by Susan Gulland

A friend handed me this book and said, "You HAVE to read this! You'll love it!" knowing that I am a big fan of books such as The Emancipator's Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln. I sat down one evening after Darling went to bed and thought "I'll just read a few pages and see"...Three hours later I look up at the clock and realize I'm half way through the book. As the first in a series of three books, The Many Lives takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the life of Josephine (Rose) de Beauharnais from her birth as Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher in Martinique on a sugar plantation through the wild days of her unhappy first marriage and The Reign of Terror to the very beginning of her fateful relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte.

What I liked:
I loved this book! I know a pretty fair amount of French Revolution history, but I never knew much about Josephine Bonaparte before her marriage to Napoleon. The story is told through "diary entries" and "letters" and since it is about a historical figure, I appreciate that they were dated so I could tie them to a bigger perspective. I have no idea if it was true or not, but I found the prediction from a slave that she would be unhappily married, would then be widowed, and would then become queen really interesting. The novel is supposed to be relatively historically accurate and that's always a bonus for me. Now I just need to get the other two books!!

What I didn't like:
Um. Not much. I really enjoyed the voice that the character of Josephine had and I appreciate that it's not just a bodice ripper in an historical setting, but I wish it revealed a little more of the actions of her first husband, Alexandre, who played a pretty big role in the early Revolution. Also, at times, I feel as if the book has pacing issues. While it is undoubtedly a quick read, sometimes the story jumps ahead really quickly and you feel as if you might have missed something that happened in between and you wonder what the writer left out. Also, and I'm not sure if it can be helped since the story is told in diary form, I wonder whether the casual reader understands exactly what is going on during certain periods of the French Revolution. Any way around it, I'm eager to read the other two books.

I really enjoyed these books and I would encourage you to check them out. If you have any good historical fiction suggestions, send 'em my way!

2 comments:

Heather J. said...

That 2nd book looks great - I think I've seen it reviewed before somewhere.

And thanks for the shout out!

erin said...

Oh no! Not two more books to read.

I just finished Charlotte Bronte's Villette...I'm not sure how I read all the other Bronte books, but not that one.
Right now I'm reading The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber...surprisingly excellent!