Category Archives: historical fiction

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Oprhan's Tale

The Orphan’s Tale is about two women during the Second World War one of whom is a Jewish circus performer and another who took a Jewish baby from a rail car at a train station and they have to work together at the circus to survive.

I enjoyed the relationship between the two main characters; they had two opposing but believable personalities. I also liked the themes of atonement and survival that are in the novel. The end of the novel was also something I didn’t expect and it left me in tears.

The only problem I have with it is that one of the women has a lover that is kind of stalker-y and it makes you a little uncomfortable.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating: Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

A Single Spy by William Christie

A Single Spy

This is the best book I’ve read all summer and may turn out to be my favorite for 2017. The main character, who is difficult to love but fascinating to follow, is a Soviet orphan who takes the street survival skills of the Artful Dodger to a far meaner and more violent level. As a teenager, he’s recruited by the Soviets to impersonate the nephew of a senior Nazi official in Germany. After arriving in Berlin, he later joins the German army, where he becomes an intelligence officer. He winds up spying in the Middle East FOR the Germans, but at the same time, he’s spying ON the Germans for the Soviets.

Building a plot around a double agent can be tricky; I’ve read other “spy thrillers” where I’ve had to double back to make sure I haven’t lost the thread. But Christie does a great job keeping everything straight, which lets the reader focus on one of the best aspects of the book: all the spying and intelligence “trade craft” that Christie works into the plot. Although I seldom read a book twice, I might be compelled to read this a second time just to savor its cleverness. The ending is marvelous but I can’t say more about it without giving too much away.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Mary Hall
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Published in 2017

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

The AlienistOk– this review is more or less a joke review. That’s because, in the eyes of Kaitlyn and myself, The Alienist by Caleb Carr on audiobook is a joke book.

Full disclosure, our displeasure is our own (read: Kaitlyn, who downloaded it) fault. We downloaded an abridged book, and so what should have been 18 hours was only 4 hours, and those 4 hours were about as interesting as an episode of Criminal Minds. That’s not to be mean to Criminal Minds— we watch that all the time when we don’t want to think or really pay attention to our electricity use. And yes, in moving we canceled cable, but still… Shemar Moore, Paget Bruster, Joe Montegna, and the rest really do a nice job on this formulaic police procedural in the trappings of pseudo-scientific psychobabble.

And, if you listen to the abridged audiobook of Carr’s Alienist, which is set to become a TV show on TNT later this year, that’s exactly what you’ll get. “Alienist,” back in the later 19th century and into the 20th, was what we now call “psychologist.” The story of The Alienist tells a fictionalized story of the clandestine first use of psychological profiling in the tracking and arrest of a serial killer in New York City. So yes, it really is Criminal Minds, if you picture Penelope Garcia looking up information by going to the library. So like The Nick, a Showtime show about doctors and their drama set in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the Alienist is a period piece that we already know the story to. A sadistic, but abused and misunderstood killer evades a wily band of profilers until he doesn’t.

The promise of such a story is that we get to learn about the theories, methods, and mores of psychology in its formative years. That sounded great! But it turns out if you abridge a novel, you monster you, you pull out all the interesting and informative things about the period and make an episode of Criminal Minds that, while admittedly entertaining, is derivative drivel.

Here’s hoping the TNT show eschews that strategy when bringing Carr’s book to the screen.

Kaitlyn has refrained from contributing to this joint review as she is actually going to go read the book. I, on the other hand, am refusing to spend any more time on anything referencing this. Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt was a character and he actually was the police commissioner of NYC. There– we DID learn something!

Recommend—– THE FULL VERSION!!!

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio), USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Recommend the full audio version.

[Your editor burst out laughing at the Criminal Minds comment because that is exactly the way she watches the show. ]

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

This is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in a long time. It takes place on one night in February 1862: the night President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was laid to rest in a DC cemetery after a speedy illness. The book is narrated by a chorus of voices: historians excerpted in their works about the Lincoln presidency (at least some of which were real), contemporary journalists and letter-writers, and most notably, ghosts who don’t know they are dead and doomed to remain in the cemetery.

These ghosts welcome young Willie into their midst and are agog when President Lincoln returns to the cemetery to be with his beloved son. The reader gains a slow understanding of the dynamics of this realm, the bardo — how the ghosts are punished and by whom, how they might seek redemption, and what and whom are waiting for them to depart.

The book is at times grotesque and mordantly funny. Yet it was deeply moving and a powerful evocation of the desperate love between a parent and child. I barreled through this book and couldn’t put it down. As the book concluded I was hugely impressed with what Saunders has accomplished, including the deft way he wove his novel into Lincoln’s history, with a subtle suggestion about how this one night might have affected the president long after he departed the cemetery.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Dragon Teeth

Given that this is a gift from beyond the grave (manuscript found after Crichton’s death), it is an enjoyable treat. Some tougher editing would have tightened up the plot, but it was a good story, fast-paced and interesting, based on a lot of reality with a dash of fiction, as early fossil hunting caught the nation’s interest in the Midwest in the last quarter of the 1800s. Definitely pick this one up!

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Jane Kostenko
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Published in 2017

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Dragon Teeth

Dragon Teeth was written prior to Jurassic Park but was never published. Crichton’s wife recently found the manuscript and it recently went to press. Crichton’s writing is always a pleasure to read. Dragon Teeth is loosely based on historic figures competing to find dinosaur fossils in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana in the 1870s when it was a dangerous undertaking, due to the Indian Wars, and the biblical theory of creation was being questioned. Well worth the wait, IMO!

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  J. Tyler Bell
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

This début novel really knocked my socks off. The novel is composed of interlocking stories of two branches of a shared family tree. Two half-siblings are born on the Gold Coast of Africa in the 1700s; one child and her descendants will remain in Africa (for the most part), while the other child is enslaved and sent to North America. The chapters alternate between strands of the family tree as the generations march forward, children becoming parents, lives blossoming or curdling, as personal journeys inevitably crash into the historical forces around them.

The book challenges the reader to consider about the durability and mystery of family ties, as well as the concepts of inherited trauma and institutional racism. The author deftly shows how certain themes, symbols, and objects echo through the generations and across family lines, as the novel is firmly grounded in a sense of place. All of the characters look back to the same place of origin; they live and die under the same sun, they cool themselves in the same waters.

Read earlier reviews of Homegoing on the summer reading blog.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Michael Dunn
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book from the 2017 Tournament of Books