historical fiction

READ THE WORLD – Uzbekistan: The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov

The edition I read was translated by Donald Rayfield and John Farndon.

On New Years Eve 1938, the writer Abdulla Qodiriy is taken from his home by Soviet soldiers and thrown into prison. To distract himself from the physical and mental torture he experiences, he attempts to mentally reconstruct the novel he was working on. A novel about Oxyon, a Uzbek poet and queen who was married to three khans in succession, and lived how Abdulla now does, in constant fear of execution. As Abdulla gets to know his cellmates, he discovers more about the political intrigue that happened during Oxyon’s time, about the English and Russian spies, and how it has similarities with his own experiences. As Adulla identifies with Oxyon more and more, the line between fiction and reality, the past and present blurs, and his inability to trust his own mind could be his downfall.

This was a very interesting book. It’s a difficult book to describe as it’s a story within a story. There’s Abdulla’s life in jail, the fellow prisoners he meets, some of which he knew from life outside prison, and others he had just met. There’s the soldiers and interrogators that make his life hell, and he’s on a constant knife-edge, not knowing who he can trust or why he’s been imprisoned. Then there’s the historical story of Oxyon, her different husbands, her time as a part of a harem and her poetry. This story takes place in the 1800’s and as it progresses you can see how events then can be compared to life in 1930s Uzbekistan.

As I read The Devils’ Dance I figured out that Oxyon’s story and the different characters mentioned in that part, were real historical figures, though some of what was written may have been fictionalised. However, I didn’t realise until to the Translators Afterword, that Abdulla Qodiriy was a real person too. It’s documentary fiction, imagining what his experience in jail was like and how he coped. Learning this gave The Devils’ Dance a new meaning in my mind. It made it more sad and made me understand Abdulla and his actions more.

The Devils’ Dance was a bit hard to comprehend at times. As the story progresses, the jumps between the present (Abdulla in jail) and the past (spies, khans and poet Queens) became less clear. To begin with, the shifts between time and story were obvious due to the formatting of the book, but as Abdulla gets more and more lost inside his own head, these stories start to overlap. Also, as I have no knowledge of the khans, queens and political turmoil historically present in Uzbekistan and the surrounding area, it was new to me and it was sometimes hard to follow these historical figures and their actions.

That being said, I enjoyed how The Devils’ Dance showed me a part of the worlds history that I knew nothing about. The different people and how they interact was fascinating. Clearly a lot of thought and research had gone into this book as you follow Oxyon’s life and the traumas she faces.

The Devils’ Dance is well written. Not only is there the text but there’s a lot of poetry in it too. This poetry is from historical poets like Cho’lpon and queens like Oxyon and Nodira. The poetry adds another level of meaning to the book as characters, both with Abdulla in jail and with Oxyon in a palace, express themselves through poetry.

The Devils’ Dance is an interesting read. It’s tough to get through sometimes, because of the brutality Abdulla faces and how it merges two stories separated by 100 years together, but the language used in it is often beautiful. It’s a fictional take on real historical events, but with a basis in research as so many historians and writers are mentioned by Abdulla and others, each looking at evidence and having a different idea as to what truly happened. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Croatia: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić

The edition I read was translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać.

She is nine years old when the Croatian War of Independence breaks out in the summer of 1991. She is sent to a seaside town to be aware from the danger. Meanwhile, her father has disappeared fighting with the Croatian forces. By the time she returns, everything has changed – her father is missing and she, her mother, ad her brother are displaced persons, fleeing the violence with nothing to call their own.

The Hotel Tito is written in first person and all the way through the story you never learn the young girls name. It wasn’t till towards the end of the novel that I realised it was based on author Ivana Bodrožić’s experience, that she was the young girl we were following for five years.

It’s interesting to see the fallout of war from a nine-year-old’s point of view. She doesn’t always understand what different politicians stand for, the political jokes adults around her say, and what could’ve possibly happened to her father. Even as she gets older, and being a displaced person is a part of who she is, she doesn’t always understand people’s resentment towards her and she takes on the attitude of us vs them in regard to her classmates.

The girl, her mother and brother have to live together in one room of a hotel for years. The hotel is for displaced people, with whole families to a single room. As she becomes a teenager it’s harder for her because both she and her older brother don’t have any personal space, they are stuck in one room that isn’t a home for years.

I knew nothing about the Croatian War of Independence before reading The Hotel Tito. I really mean nothing as it was a conflict that I had never even heard of. The fact that people had to move from one part of the country to another for their own safety, leaving their homes and belongings, and were often met with hostility from their own countrymen is hard to wrap my head around. These people were refugees in their own country, and their own politicians near enough abandoned them, with no home and little to no financial support.

The Hotel Tito is the story of a family who are stuck in limbo, and a young girl who not only has the usual struggles that comes with becoming a teenager, arguing with siblings, fancying boys and going to parties, but also having a sense of no real security. The Hotel Tito is easily accessible thanks to seeing such harsh realities of war through the eyes of a young person, but that makes this true story even sadder.

READ THE WORLD – Afghanistan: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Ten-year-old Abdullah and his little sister Pari live with their family in the small village of Shadbagh in Afghanistan. They are as close as two people can be but when circumstances outside of their control separates them they both go different life-long journeys, where they struggle to keep their connection alive.

I’ve had And the Mountains Echoed sitting unread on my shelves for a couple of years now, but it was only when I got the audiobook (narrated by Khaled Hosseini, Navid Negahban and Shohreh Aghdashloo) from my library, that I finally got around to reading it and I’m so glad I did.

Khaled Hosseini is probably most famous for writing The Kite Runner, but this is the first book I’ve read by him. It was a very enjoyable book that’s often devastating but does offer a sense of hope. The writing is really good, there are so many touching and thought-provoking quotes, and the way Hosseini gets you connected to these characters is to be admired as there’s a lot of them.

And the Mountains Echoed not only follows Abdullah and Pari, but characters related to them or characters they’ve met briefly at one point or another. It’s sometimes a little disorientating as each chapter is from a different character’s point of view and at the beginning of each chapter its not made clear, whose perspective we’re now in. In a way, this makes And the Mountains Echoed a bit like a mystery. You are given different perspectives of different events, that all somehow relate to the main plot-thread but it’s up to you as the reader to figure out how these characters and events are all connected.

You don’t just get to see how characters change over time in And the Mountains Echoed, but countries and their people too. The book spans almost 60 years, starting in 1952 and the last chapter taking place in 2010. Through this time, you get to see Afghanistan as a country evolve. Characters live through prosperous times and times of conflict, it is often everyday life for them as it’s their home. While for other characters who have emigrated and then returned, they don’t always feel at home there anymore.

And the Mountains Echoed is about family, heritage, culture, and the connections people make with others and places. It’s finding about finding loved ones and a place to call home. It’s a touching story that while is often sad, as it follows the all to real traumas of everyday life – sudden death of a loved one, old age, and disagreements with family – it also has moments of light-heartedness and optimism about life. 4/5.

REVIEW: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

At seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to marry a man she did not choose, a man who is the son of the Emperor. But her journey is cut short when her convoy is attacked by the Black Clan – a group of bandits and thieves who were hired to kill Mariko before she could reach the palace. But Mariko survives and vows revenge on those who want her dead. Disguised as a peasant boy, she infiltrates the Black Clan, becoming one of them, impressing them with her wit and ingenuity. But as she gets closer to her enemies, Mariko begins to discover a web of lies and a history of secrets that will change everything she thought she knew.

Flame in the Mist is set in Feudal Japan but there’s also some magical elements in it too. I really in the liked how the historical was entwined with the magic and myths, both seemed very groundedses characters reality. When this book first came out I heard it was a Mulan retelling or inspired by Mulan, and it’s really not. The only similarity to Mulan is that the main protagonist is a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to further her aims. Mariko’s goals are very different to Mulan’s. Mariko is very smart in terms of academia and alchemy, but is incredibly naïve when it comes to life outside her gilded cage. She doesn’t know how to hunt or cook or fight and often gets into verbal sparring matches with those around her to try and hide her failings.

Mariko likes to think she’s good at reading people, and has learnt to be underestimated, being a daughter of a prominent Samurai, but when she meets Ōkami she has a much harder time getting a read on him. The dynamic between Mariko and Ōkami is an interesting one and they bounce of each other really well, managing to intrigue and unsettle one another at the same time. Ōkami is just the sort of character I end up really liking. He’s slow to trust but loyal, has a deadly set of skills and is smart. He and Mariko make an unconventional partnership.

Flame in the Mist was a bit slow to pull me in. While it kicked off straight away with the attack on Mariko’s convey, I found it took a while to connect with her and her story. As the story progressed, more characters began to reveal themselves, their political aspirations and loyalty, slowly showing that Mariko was caught up in plots much bigger than herself. The second half of the book sped along though. There was a lot of action, fights and secrets revealed and it became a proper page-turner.

Flame in the Mist is the first book in a duology so natural there’s a lot of threads left hanging, though there was some good character stuff throughout the book. While I won’t be rushing out to get it as soon as it’s released later this year, I will be picking up Smoke in the Sun at some point as I did end up enjoying Mariko as a character and am interested to see how all the plot threads are wrapped up, especially the political ones. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Australia: Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan

When a young Australian con artist discovers a book titled Gould’s Book of Fish, a book with paintings of fish as well as a man’s story as a convict on Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830’s, he becomes obsessed with it. And so, begins the story of William Buelow Gould, his adventures before and after his incarceration on Van Diemen’s Land, the people he meets and how he becomes a reluctant painter of fish.

Gould’s Book of Fish is a weird one. It’s funny and gruesome and fantastical and sometimes makes very little sense at all. William Buelow Gould is a witty narrator as he recounts his life and his exploits, the way he notes his limitations and then straightaway goes against any common-sense is often farcical and hilarious. The situations he gets himself in are almost like watching a car-crash in slow-motion, you cant look away and instead are captivated and horrified.

The historical setting is an interesting yet brutal one. The descriptions throughout the novel are incredibly vivid, for instance, the way the prisoners are punished is cruel and disgusting and it doesn’t shy away from the brutalities that the prisoners experienced. Also, the way the landscape of Van Diemen’s Land (what we now call Tanzania) is described makes the location seem just as harsh and unforgiving as the people who are living there.

A lot happens in Gould’s Book of Fish and it doesn’t always seem believable. In fact, the way the story ends leaves you wondering what’s real and what’s not and even if the character of William Buelow Gould was actually a real character in the story or was he a stand in for someone else. It’s a fantastical story, especially with the prominence of the fish, each of them being related to either a significant character or event in Gould’s life. The fish are a part of him and his connection to them ends up being an almost magical thing. Though, a magical thing that’s not always logical.

I listened to Gould’s Book of Fish on audiobook, which I think certainly helped me follow the story thanks to the brilliant narrator Humphrey Bower. I don’t think I would have got on with the book if I was reading a physical copy. So much happens, and not always in a linear order, that it would perhaps be a bit of a dense book to get through. The audiobook had a great narrator though and made the nonsense story just a bit more understandable.

Gould’s Book of Fish is a weird but enjoyable read. It’s got some bizarre characters and the situations Gould ends up a part of are often bonkers and farfetched, but they’re certainly not forgettable. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – South Korea: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, her family faces ruin until a Christian minister offers her a chance for a new life in Japan as his wife. Leaving her parents and her home in Korea with a man she barely knows, Sunja’s second chance in life in a hostile country will be nothing like she suspects.

Spanning from 1910 to 1989 Pachinko follows four generations of one family. This allows you to get to know characters from birth, through their turbulent lives and, to some characters, their death. While some parts of the story are an uninterrupted narrative and you follow the family for a number of consecutive years, other parts jump forward in time and a character that was teenager is now an adult.

This makes it sometimes difficult to connect with the characters. I found Pachinko a bit slow to start with as I got used to the setting and the socio-economic politics presented that I was unaware of beforehand. After a while something clicked for me with this book as I was pulled in by this family and how global events shaped their lives.

These characters in Pachinko feel very real. They’re often a victim of their own circumstance, they are sometimes sympathetic, they can be frustrating and unlikable, just like real people. Sometimes they are presented with a difficult decision and really there’s only one option they can take, on the most part you understand their choices and motivations, while with others it’s not so clear.

I liked how this was the story of a family of immigrants and you got to see what life was like for Koreans who moved to Japan. Pachinko shows there was a lot of distrust on both sides due to the Japanese conquering Korea and their actions during the two World Wars. For decades, the Japanese see the Koreans as second-class citizens, and even if someone is born in Japan, they do not automatically become a Japanese citizen, even though Japan is the only home they know. Pachinko shows how all of this affects the different members of the family in different ways, how over time some things change and get better, while others do not.

At over 500 pages, Pachinko is an intimidating read but the writing style is simple and accessible, meaning once I’d connected to the characters I got pulled along with their story. Pachinko offers an insight into life in Japan for Koreans and it presents the idea of what or where is truly home. It’s all about family and belonging, how family may not always be who you’re related to by blood and how home can mean different things to different people. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he has too much fun for that. Neither being kicked out of the finest boarding schools in England nor his father’s disapproval can stop him drinking, gambling or waking up in the arms of women or men. As Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, along with his best friend Percy (who he may be in love with) and his younger sister Felicity, he has one final year of fun until he must return home and to be a part of his father’s business. But things go awry when Monty’s usual recklessness turns their trip abroad into a manhunt across Europe, putting himself and those he cares about in danger.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is so much fun. It’s set in the 1700’s which allows for a different kind of travelling adventure. They can’t get money easily, there’s now quick communication to back home if things go wrong so when you encounter highway men or pirates you’re on your own with just your wits.

Monty, Percy and Felicity are a great trio of characters with interesting dynamics. Felicity was the one I loved straight away. She’s a young lady due to go to finishing school when all she really wants to do is go to the school’s her brother has been kicked out of. But due to her gender and the times that’s not possible, no matter how smart and eager she is. Percy is the nephew of a nobleman but he has never really fitted in to high society due to his Barbadian mother. Even though his childhood must’ve been difficult he is warm and kind and cares about Monty a lot. Monty took longer to grow on me as the problems he ends up facing really help him grow and learn more about himself. He’s selfish and only thinks about how other people’s issues affects him, he’s a charmer and doesn’t think before he acts – all qualities that are often simultaneously infuriating and endearing.

Monty’s voice shines through in the writing, making this 500-page novel fly by. Also, the fact that Monty ends up in almost non-stop escapades definitely helps make it a book that’s difficult to put down. From England, to France and beyond their adventures and the mystery they uncover often verges into the absurd but it’s all told with such charm and wit that it ends up being quite brilliant. Along with all the excitement and threat of danger, there’s still quieter moments between the characters that show they aren’t necessarily cut out for this kind of thing but being together makes them stronger and better.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a great historical adventure story with a bisexual main character, an engaging romance and a colourful cast of characters. 5/5.