historical fiction

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.

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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.

READ THE WORLD – Germany: Sirius by Jonathan Crown

In Berlin, he was named Levi – a good Jewish name for a good Jewish dog. When he fled with his owners to America he became Hercules, Hollywood’s famous acting dog. Then he caught the eye of Hitler he was renamed Hansi. But to the Resistance he was known as Sirius, the dog on the inside who could bring peace to a world at war. No matter the name, he’s a little dog who almost changed history.

Sirius is a historical novel that’s mostly told from the point of view of the titular dog. He is the focal point of much of the action, it’s through his eyes the reader see’s major events like Kristallnacht, so there’s often this distance between the action and what it really means as while Sirius is smart, he’s still just a dog who doesn’t understand what’s happening. The story also follows Sirius’s human family, the Liliencron’s, so the more emotive stuff comes from them as they flee Germany and make new lives from themselves amongst famous face of Hollywood’s golden age.

Sirius is written in a simple language style and is a very quick and easy book to read that’s got some humour in it. Having a dog being the main character makes this book have an unusual take on historical events. It’s one of those stories where you wonder where the fiction ends and the fact begins due to Sirius meeting so many real people from Hollywood executive Jack L. Warner to Adolf Hitler. There’s some things I know cannot be true and Sirius and his human family have been dropped into a real moment in time, where there’s other parts that seem almost plausible.

The main problem I had with Sirius is that I didn’t really connect with characters. Maybe it was because of the writing style but there was this distance between the characters and myself as the reader. I was interested in Sirius’s adventures to an extent but it wasn’t really a book I felt compelled to keep reading.

If you’re a dog lover (I am and that’s the main reason I picked up this book in the first place) and someone interested in a different kind of story set during World War Two then give Sirius a go.

REVIEW: Hood by Stephen R. Lawhead

FullSizeRender (80)Bran’s father the king has been killed and while he is heir to the throne, the invading Frenic have set up their own ruler of Elfael. Forced to run in order to survive Bran must decide whether he wants to continue running or stop and help his people take back what is rightfully theirs. All the while the legendary King Raven has returned and is haunting the woodlands.

Hood is a retelling of the legend of Robin Hood. Bran is this tales Robin and he is not the most likeable character to begin with. He’s never wanted to be King and all he wanted was to escape and leave the problems of Elfael behind. He doesn’t even really care for his people to start with. It’s Angharad, an old wise woman who knows the way of magic and healing who helps him find his path. Angharad is pretty awesome. She’s wise, mysterious and knows more than she should. (more…)