Tag Archives: historical fiction

Pace Yourself: The Paying Guests

Whenever library workers chat with you about books, we try to figure out what kind of book you’ll like so we know what to recommend. We ask you a lot of questions designed to tease out certain kinds of information we call “appeal factors.” That’s fancy library lingo for “must-haves and deal-breakers” and they’re different from person to person.

Some readers care about the plot: how exciting it is, whether or not it makes sense, and–in the case of mystery readers–how hard it is to figure out whodunit. Others insist on complex characters, both likable ones and those you love to hate. You get the idea. The thing that makes or breaks a book for me personally is the pacing: if it’s not hitting certain dramatic beats in what I consider a timely fashion, I just can’t finish it. Usually this happens when a book is moving too slowly: there’s a big difference between tease and snooze, and some authors just haven’t figured it out.

Sarah Waters is not one of those authors. I’ve just finished part one of The Paying Guests and am impressed with how well it’s put together. In fact, its three-part structure and gradually unfolding action lend itself nicely to filming; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a TV version on PBS or BBC America at some point, particularly since it’s set in the same time period as Downton Abbey, and would have, I think, massive crossover appeal.

It’s helpful that the protagonist, Frances Wray, is both sympathetic and interesting: a payingguestsyoung woman who’s quietly sacrificed all of her own dreams and desires to take care of her elderly mother. She’s not a martyr about it; in fact, she’s extremely practical and pretty much resigned to her losses (which include both brothers, killed in WWI). Because they’re a bit down on their luck after the death of Mr. Wray, Frances and her mother rent out part of their home to a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. After the Barbers move in, however, Frances finds a passion for life … and Lilian.

Frances and Lilian’s feelings for each other unfold at just the right pace. There’s an art to these things, and Waters understands it. Given the time period, and the fact that Lilian appears to be happily married when we first meet her, it would be absurd if they fell into each others’ arms immediately. Frances doesn’t even notice anything special about Lilian the day the Barbers move in; she’s annoyed that the Wray finances are so bad they have to share their house with others (something that’s definitely Not Done in their social circles). Frances’s slow warm-up, and Lilian’s even slower thaw, thread the narrative with a delicious energy: are they going to get together, or not?

Waters makes the sensible choice to answer this question, and raise new ones, by the end of Part One. This works well because dragging out the will-they-or-won’t-they question over the course of a 500+ page novel is both cruel and unfair (there’s a difference between tease and torture, too). The resolution of Part One ups the ante for Part Two, creating even more tension with new questions: what obstacles will Frances face going forward? Will Lilian hold to her decision, or choose a different road? Is Leonard going to find out about any of this, and what will he do if he does? And what role will poor Mrs. Wray play as the action unfolds? Though she’s a somewhat minor character, she’s still got the potential to be either an obstacle or a gateway to happiness, and it’s exciting to wonder which way it will go.

I’m indulging myself in a little more speculation and dramatic tension before I dive into Part Two; honestly, by the time I finished Part One I needed to stop and catch my breath. If this kind of reading experience sounds fun to you, and you’d like to spend some time in post-WWI London with a pair of conflicted young women from different social classes, you’ll really enjoy The Paying Guests, which you can read in print, large print, audio book, and digital audio.  I’m tempted to try an audio option next, to compare/contrast; I’m a bit fussier about pacing in audio, though, because I can’t control the speed at which the narrator reads. Still, the story’s so good, it’s worth a shot.

What makes or breaks a book for you? What does a story absolutely have to have in terms of character, plot, pacing, setting, etc. for you to really enjoy it? What else can we call “appeal factors” so they don’t sound quite so formal and stuffy? Let us know what you think in a comment below!

–Leigh Anne

 

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Meet Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Little Bee Author Chris Cleave This Friday

everyonebraveChris Cleave, whose Little Bee and Incendiary have become favorites of many library customers (and a whole bunch of library staff) will be stopping by the Main Library’s Lecture Hall for a talk and signing at 7 pm on Friday, May 13.

When we first began talking with our wonderful partners at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures over a year ago to see how we could build on our successful collaborative efforts to bring children’s and teen authors and local authors to the library, we saw an opportunity to get bring in top authors who are touring in support of a new book.

And boy, were we right about that! Cleave will be visiting just 10 days after the release of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in which he weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of World War II London, a story that was inspired by the experiences of his grandparents.

The basic plot follows Mary North, her friend Hilda, and two young men they meet. Mary signs up at the War Office when World War II breaks out, and is assigned a position at a teacher in an elementary school. While there, she meets Tom Shaw, who runs the school district, and his roommate Alistair, who enlists in the war. The novel details the various struggles and intrigues of these characters, explores their feelings for each other, and traces their lives as they grow and mature.

The book is a hit and has gotten rave review from People, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and just about every other publication that reviews literary fiction. Here’s a snippet from Kirkus:

Among all the recent fictions about the war, Cleave’s miniseries of a novel is a surprising standout, with irresistibly engaging characters who sharply illuminate issues of class, race, and wartime morality.

But all of you Cleave fans out there already know all of that. What you need to know is that you can meet Chris at the Lecture Hall on Friday at 7 pm.

Tickets are $10, and you can get them by clicking here or by calling Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures at 412-622-8866.

-Dan, who will probably be at the Lecture Hall door to smile and greet you at the door on the 13th

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Time Travel, History and Romance

outlanderdvdWhen a good friend of mine found out that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, she turned me on to Outlander after it had aired last year. Although comparisons have been drawn to Game of Thrones, these two series are not entirely similar (admittedly, both of the book series were difficult to market, were “word of mouth” books and took a good while before being translated to screen). But Game of Thrones is epic high fantasy that takes place in a world nothing like our own and is dependent on magic, dragons and family sagas. Whereas Outlander takes place in a historically accurate Scotland and is more historical fiction/romance with a twinge of science fiction thrown in the beginning.

Our story opens with the heroine Claire Randall, a former British Army nurse seeking to reconnect with her husband Frank after a WWII-induced separation. Their story begins on their second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland, where Frank indulges his passion in genealogy (which you can do with the Library’s resources), while Claire focuses her energy on botany. After witnessing a pagan ritual at an ancient stone circle with her husband, Claire ventures out alone to gather some specimens. She’s drawn to a standing stone and, as far as her husband in 1945 is concerned, vanishes without a trace. This serves as the jumping-off point for her adventure as she struggles to grasp what’s going on around her, when she is and where she is.

Though she quickly realizes she’s still in Scotland, she can’t quite figure out how she landed on a cinema set for a costume drama. However, she soon gathers this is no set when she notices that the actors are firing live ammunition. Through a stroke of bad luck, she runs into Captain “Black Jack” Randall and is almost raped, but is saved by Dougal McKenzie’s band of Scots and taken hostage. It is at this point that she discovers she has fallen through time to 18th century war-torn Scotland, where being an Englishwoman isn’t always a great thing to be. Her captors lead her to Castle Leoch, the heart of the McKenzie Clan. She is suspected of being a Sassenach spy and tasked with the unpaid job of healer, while they try to figure her out. If you expected a damsel-in-distress story, this isn’t it. Claire is a capable, clever (and thanks to her husband Frank, knows her history), complicated, independent and stubborn modern-day woman (for 1945 at least).

outlanderDevoted fans of the Outlander series who have been waiting (… and waiting … and waiting) for these novels to be successfully translated to the small screen, have had their patience rewarded tenfold with the Starz series. There is demonstrated effort to keep the series as faithful to the books as possible.  Created by Battlestar Galactica show runner Ronald D. Moore, this series enlisted author Diana Gabaldon as a consultant, thereby assuaging any anxieties that Gabaldon’s loyal fanbase may have had. If nothing else, watch for the great scenery, fantastic costumes and dedication to historical accuracy. Mr. Moore has an amazing team of costume designers, set decorators, writers, weapons and riding experts and Scottish Gaelic language coaches for the actors that would rival Game of Thrones any day (well, except for the dragons …).

If a bit of adventure, time-travel, history and romance are your thing, by all means check out the DVD sets (volume 1 and 2) today. In the meantime, take some time out to brush up on your history of the Jacobite Rebellion and Bonnie Prince Charlie. If you want to take it to a whole new level (and please do!), you can also learn a bit of Scottish Gaelic using the library’s resources. Season 2 of Outlander begins in April on Starz.

Cheers!

-Whitney

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Traveling back in time with Outlander

Note: Today’s post includes spoilers – read at your own risk.

Outlander is a TV show that airs on Starz and is based on a series of books with the same name by Diana Gabaldon. A friend recommended the TV show to me. Now, I haven’t read the books nor do I plan on it. Usually, I’m not a fan of historical fiction, but I like this show. I think that I enjoy period pieces on screen instead of in literature.

The main character is Claire Beauchamp and she’s a nurse during World War II in 1945. The war ends and Claire is reunited with her husband.

While out exploring plants, Claire stumbles upon a stone and after touching it gets transported back in time to Scotland in 1743. When she arrives, Captain Randall of the Red Coat army, who eerily looks just like her husband, Frank, tries to sexually assault her. Claire is then rescued by Dougal Mackenzie of the Mackenzie clan of Scotland and taken back to their castle. Everyone there is suspicious of Claire and thinks that she’s a British spy. Some of the people get over it, but not all. Claire adjusts to life at the castle, but there are some bumps along the way as she tries to make it back home.

Claire Beauchamp herself is a strong, female character. She stands up against injustice. An example of this is in episode 5 when Dougal wanted to keep a goat that belonged to a family who had a baby that needed milk. Claire also doesn’t take crap from anyone. I would consider her to be a feminist because she always has lines that echo this sentiment. A lot of the men on the show are sexist and misogynistic and Claire points that out every chance that she gets and I love it.

Claire is also a sexually liberated woman and isn’t afraid of her sexuality. An example of this occurred in episode 5 when she asked Jamie if he wanted to sleep in her room after she found him sleeping outside of it. Jamie asked her “What about your reputation?” Her response was “I’ve already slept under the stars with you and 10 other men.” I loved this response. I thought that it was very progressive.

One complaint that I have about the show is that a lot of the male characters define Claire only by her beauty instead of by her intelligence and talent as a nurse. Although it doesn’t surprise me it still manages to annoy me. One thing that surprised me was that the writers made Jamie’s character a virgin instead of Claire. Considering the time period it’s all about a woman’s purity, so the fact that Jamie was a virgin was a switch of gender stereotypes. Jamie is a part of the Mackenzie clan and Claire ends up nursing him back to health a few times. As the show goes on, their relationship develops. I love the development of their relationship. Although the creator of the show, Ronald D. Moore, said in an interview that episode 7 is when we see Claire and Jamie fall in love with each other; I noticed the signs earlier on. It may seem fast to a lot of people, but it didn’t to me because I had seen the signs earlier, so when episode 7 came on I was fine and happy about it.

Outlander isn’t a perfect show, but I thoroughly enjoy it. There were a couple of scenes that disturbed me so I’m warning you now. The first part of season one is available in our catalog. The second part of season one started on Saturday, April 4th on Starz.

Kayla

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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My Favorite Mediocre Book

It seems to be the season for unpopular opinions here in the Eleventh Stack. We are denying the touchstones of our generation, swearing off the big hits, and gearing up to not go see the 50 Shades movie. With that in mind, I figured it was time to share my favorite not-very-good book.

Freckles,* a 1904 classic by Gene Stratton-Porter, tells the story of a plucky, one-handed Irish orphan making a life and a family for himself in the woods of Indiana (the Limberlost) at the turn of the last century. If you think that sounds like a plot worthy of Horatio Alger, you’re pretty much right. As in Alger’s 100-plus novels, our brave hero is a proponent of honest work and clean living, which eventually cause a fortune to fall into his lap. The author achieved commercial success (her novels eventually made her a millionaire), but railed against the literary critics who rejected her popular fiction.

While Horatio Alger dignified his work above pulp fiction with highbrow literary allusions, Stratton-Porter glorifies hers with nature. The woods where Freckles lives and works were right outside her family home, and she was a committed naturalist who went on to publish several nonfiction books on the local species. While the environment is relevant to the story—Freckles works as a guard for a lumber company, protecting part of their territory from poachers—the descriptions of the wetlands seem to interest the author more than her own characters do.

The flow of the story gets interrupted for pages at a time to describe scenes “[that] would have driven a botanist wild with envy.” And yet, as the New York Review of Books points out, “she performs the brilliant feat of fudging that permits the reader to feel ennobled by the natural world while rooting for its extirpation.” The wilderness Freckles loves is actively being destroyed by his allies and mentors, and he is helping them do it.

The writing is, at its best moments, so wildly overblown that it can be hard to take seriously. The dialogue drips with sentimentality and questionable dialects. Freckles falls in love with a girl known for the entirety of the book (and its sequel) as the Swamp Angel. “Me heart’s all me Swamp Angel’s,” he says, “and me love is all hers, and I have her and the swamp so confused in me mind I never can be separating them. When I look at her, I see blue sky, the sun rifting through the leaves and pink and red flowers; and when I look at the Limberlost I see a pink face with blue eyes, gold hair, and red lips.”

The plot hangs on ideas of genetic inheritance that are beyond ridiculous—namely, that the orphan Freckles’s biological family can be identified not only by similar looks but also similar character attributes such as pluck, honesty, capacity for loving, and (even stranger) vocal training. As is said of his gentility, “No one at the [orphans’] Home taught you. Hundreds of men couldn’t be taught, even in a school of etiquette; so it must be instinctive with you. If it is, why, that means that it is born in you, and a direct inheritance from a race of men that have been gentlemen for ages, and couldn’t be anything else.” This also comes with a few uncomfortable moments of ethnic stereotyping, where his traits are as much attributed to his Irishness (he grew up in Chicago) as anything personal or familial.

And yet, I love this book. It may help that I was introduced to it by my mother, who was introduced to it by her mother, when I was much younger and less sarcastic than I am now. It certainly helps that I’m sentimental and respond well to outpourings of emotion. I identify well with the Angel’s proclamation, “I never have had to dream of love. I never have known anything else, in all my life, but to love every one and to have every one love me.” Particularly during the dark of winter, it’s nice to have something overflowing with spring life. And as excessive as the language is, the characters are charming, and the morality is uncomplicated. Spoiler alert—the bad guys are defeated and the good guys are rewarded and get to live happily ever after in a place that’s really pretty. And some days, that’s as much as I need.

-Bonnie T. *There’s only one copy in the library system, but the full text is available for free online through Project Gutenberg.

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2015 Reading Resolutions: Onward and Upward!

With another year of books under our belts, it’s time to look ahead. To bring the blogging year to a close, some Eleventh Stackers have chosen to share their reading resolutions for 2015. There’s nowhere to go, but up, and our team has aimed high — check it out!

Jess

Every time someone asks for a mystery recommendation, I cringe. Despite my love for serialized crime shows (Criminal Minds, Veronica Mars, Murder She Wrote…), I just have a hard time with the genre in book form. 2015 is the year I step up my game and have some titles in my back pocket for the next time I’m put on the spot. I have Anthony Hororwitz’s Moriarty on my list (I read The House of Silk last year for our Tuesday book club, and liked his take on Sherlock). And a regular patron suggested the Ian Rutledge series, by Charles Todd. Readers, if you have any must-reads, maybe some non-historicals that are maybe a bit John Grisham-y, please send ’em my way.

suzy

Unfinished business.

Unfinished business.

I’m going to finish some books in 2015. This year, for whatever reason, I’d get almost to the end of a book and stop reading it. It didn’t matter whether I liked the book or not: I just stopped. I don’t know if this is a sign of mental illness or a newly shortened attention span. Here is a sampling of the books I started, thoroughly enjoyed, and never finished. Feel free to tell me the endings.

Ross

In 2010 I started Stephen King’s It. “Started” being the key word here.  That book is thick, yo.  Maybe 2015 will be the year I finish it.  Or maybe I’ll focus on the classics that I missed out on for one reason or the other, like Animal Farm or Moby-Dick.  Maybe I’ll go back to the books of my childhood, like the Narnia books. Or, since I just started re-watching Gilmore Girls, maybe I’ll focus on a Rory Gilmore reading list.

Irene

I’ve never had much use for audio-books, but I recently discovered how much I like listening to them on long runs. So my reading resolution for 2015 is actually more of a listening resolution: to delve into the library’s collection of super-portable Playaways. I just started listening to Runner.

Scott

I plan to read some more Anne Sexton. I am also slowly re-reading all of the Song Of Ice And Fire novels using the eCLP format.

Leigh Anne

I like to play along with formal reading challenges, to make sure that I regularly step out of my favorite genres and formats to try a little bit of everything. Luckily the magical internet is filled with such opportunities, most of which I find via A Novel Challenge, a terrific blog that collects news and info about different reading games. Of course, I always load up on way too many challenges, and rarely finish any of them…but I sure do have a great time trying!

Here are some challenges I’ll be signing up for in 2015:

The Bookish 2015 TBR Reading Challenge. I have two bookcases at home filled with books I own that I haven’t read yet (I blame the Library, both for being so excellent and for fueling my book-buying habit). It’s getting a little bit out of hand, so I’ve decided to dive into those TBR shelves and decide whether to keep or regift what I’ve got.

It's not bragging if it's true.

It’s not bragging if it’s true.

Janet Ursel’s We Read Diverse Books Challenge. It’s no secret that the publishing  industry is still predominantly white, which means there are a lot of stories out there untold or overlooked. This bothers me both professionally and personally, so I’m on a constant mission to make sure my own reading and reviewing is as inclusive as possible. This challenge was inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign of 2014.

The 2015 Ebook Reading Challenge. Ebooks are an important part of the reading landscape these days, and I really should be looking at more of them (Overdrive READ is my friend right now, until I finally decide which tablet I want). Ebooks are also sometimes challenging for me because of my vision impairments, but I’m hoping Consumer Reports , a little web sleuthing, and input from other users (maybe you?) will help me pick out the tablet with the best accessibility features. Thanks in advance!

The 2015 Graphic Novels & Manga Challenge. This one’s kind of a cheat, as I adore comics of all kinds. The problem is, I rarely make time to read them, mostly out of guilt because they’re so much fun and there are many other Terribly Serious Things I should be reading dontcha know. However, this means I missed a lot of good stuff in 2014, so I’ve decided to ditch the guilt and spend 2015 savoring the fine art of comics. Woohoo!

Four challenges is do-able, right?  I’ll report back regularly in upcoming blog posts.

Melissa F.

Browsing the historical fiction section

Browsing the historical fiction section

I’ve become a little too comfortable insofar as my reading habits go. On one hand, I don’t see any problem with this, since reading is something I do for fun and entertainment. Still, there’s something to be said for expanding one’s knowledge and horizons.

In 2015, I’m planning to do more of my reading from the World Fiction and Historical Fiction sections on the First Floor of CLP-Main. I’m not setting an actual numerical goal for this resolution, just challenging myself to read more from these areas (which I admittedly tend to overlook while perusing the new fiction, nonfiction, and short stories).  Your suggestions are most welcome.

And there you have it! Do you have any reading recommendations or advice for the Eleventh Stackers? Do you set yourself reading goals or just let the books fall where they may? Share the wisdom, leave a comment!

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Historic

Lately I’ve found myself a little off the beaten path of what I usually read, and have been really enjoying some historical fiction. For some reason I haven’t ventured much into this genre, but I’ve been finding that one of my favorite things is being able to follow up on a novel and find out more about characters who actually existed. Here are a few titles that have crossed my path recently:

The Fortune Hunter, by Daisy Goodwin: I enjoyed Goodwin’s previous book a few years ago (The American Heiress), so I was excited to read her second novel. Like her first, this is a work of historical fiction, centering around the love affair of Charlotte Baird and Captain Bay Middleton and complicated by the charismatic Empress Elizabeth of Austria. I love historical fiction that’s based on real characters; all three existed and while the plot is fiction, there were enough details in this novel to make me curious about the real Empress Elizabeth (who apparently really did sleep with raw meat on her face!).

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue: As one of the few people left who didn’t read Donoghue’s bestselling Room, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel. This may have worked in my favor, since I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what to expect. What I discovered were more compelling characters taken from history. In the summer of 1876, a San Francisco woman named Jenny Bonnet was murdered and a sensational court case followed, with a French burlesque dancer named Blanche as the primary witness. Aside from the gripping plot, I found the descriptions of 19th century life in the West to be just fascinating, and I especially loved that at the end of the novel Donoghue closes with an afterward about her research. (More on her research for this novel here, if you’re into that kind of thing).

Bittersweet, by  Colleen McCullough: I was a young teenager when I first read The Thorn Birds, and although I haven’t kept up with any of McCullough’s other books this one caught my eye. It’s no Thorn Birds (but what is??!), but still a fun read. It’s about four sisters– two sets of twins– in 1920’s Australia who are just setting off to start their lives away from their parents and become registered nurses. I’m still reading this one, but one thing I’m loving is commentary on women during this time period: in Australia women seemed to have much greater freedom (in terms of dress and general independence), but were still very much at the mercy of their husbands.

Reading anything good? Let us know in the comments!

-Irene

 

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