historical fiction

READ THE WORLD – Poland: Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala has lived an exciting life. Born in Poland just after World War One, Lala grew up to be a selfless and honest independent woman who survived some of the most turbulent events in Europe. As she falls prey to the first signs of dementia, she continues to tell the stories of her life to her grandson, who faithfully notes down her adventures.

Lala was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lawrence Dobiesz which I would recommend.

Lala as a book is a little confusing as it’s marked as a work of fiction but the way it’s told, and the fact the grandson who is narrating this story has the same first name as the author, did make me wonder if it was a combination of fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy.

The scenes where it’s clear that Lala is losing her memory were both funny and poignant. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when reading about Lala’s antics I had to smile as there were so many things she said or did that was just like my gran. It’s a great depiction of a woman slowly losing her mind but then there’s also those moments of suddenly clarity which were lovely but also so sad as Lala was never going to get better.

Lala is a grand sweeping story as Lala tells stories about her family as far back as her great-grandfather. This is where she would sometimes confuse something her grandfather did for something her father did, then it’s her grandson who corrects her as he’s heard so many of these stories before he could often recite them by heart.

While Lala is the focus of the story, with her life before, during and after the Second World War is a big part of it, her stories of a family means this story spans over 100 years. This led me to learning a lot about Polish history that I’d never even heard of.

I really enjoyed Lala. It’s an interesting insight into Poland’s turbulent history from he eyes of a character who lived through it all, the good and the bad. It’s funny, touching and sometimes verges on the ridiculous because of Lala’s outlandish stories about the situations she’d get into or she’d hear about. I loved the way it’s told with the grandson simultaneously seeming to tell the red the stories and to be hearing them for the first time himself.

Lala is such an interesting book and it’s honest and realistic take of a woman slowly succumbing to dementia was brilliant yet sad. 5/5.

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REVIEW: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Set in France during the 1620s, young d’Artagnan looks to join the King’s Musketeers where he meets Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Soon the four of them become firm friends and they have adventures across the country as there’s many plots afoot.

Every August Rincey from Rincey Reads on YouTube hosts a month long readalong of a large and maybe intimidating classic. This year it was The Three Musketeers, a book that’s been on my shelves for at least ten years, so this readalong gave me the push to finally read it.

I’ve seen a lot of different adaptations of The Three Musketeers, I saw some of the episodes of the relatively recent BBC series and I’ve seen a whole host of the various films that have been made over the decades. So, going into The Three Musketeers, I could remember bits about the characters, their relationships, and the story but it was really interesting to learn more about them and get the whole story.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Tristam Summers and it was a great audiobook that sucked me in and I’d definitely recommend it as it made the story fly by and wasn’t as intimidating as the physical book might’ve been.

The main plot of The Three Musketeers takes a while to reveal itself, instead focussing on introducing all the characters and their loyalties. I was surprised how much of the focus of the story was on d’Artagnan, especially the first third. He was definitely the main character rather than the titular three musketeers themselves. Athos is the musketeer with the most backstory, I personally found Aramis kind of snarky and frequently hilarious (he’s my favourite musketeer) but he and especially Porthos were left in the background for the majority of the book.

Once everyone’s been introduced the story moves along at great speed. There’s political intrigue with some people supporting the King, or more specifically the Queen, while others stand by the Cardinal who has he’s own goals. He’s a shady character who seems to have eyes and ears everywhere so when d’Artagnan and the musketeers have a mission, they have to very careful as to who they trust.

The female characters aren’t treated particularly well which is a shame and is potentially a sign of the time it was written. Milady de Winter is a fantastic character though and I would read a spinoff or a prequel about her. She’s a spy and an assassin who uses men’s idea of her, that she can be nothing more than a weak, delicate woman, in order to complete her mission and in some cases get away with murder. She’s brilliant and her interactions with both d’Artagnan and Athos were always interesting.

I loved The Three Musketeers. It is a proper action-adventure with some political intrigue and romance sprinkled through it as well. The characters, especially d’Artagnan, ends up in a completely different place compared to where they started, and I could never have predicted where the story goes even though I’ve seen various film adaptations. The Three Musketeers is just a lot of fun. 5/5.

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.

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.