Blasts from the past

Remember the Cold War, maybe "duck-and-cover" at school or a bomb shelter at home? Deborah Wiles captures all that and a lot more -- Breck Girls! -- in her new youth novel Countdown, starring 11-year-old Franny and a cast of colorful family and friends. Wiles, an award-winning author, says on her web page that all her books are "personal narrative turned into fiction."

A mother's devotion

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam is a novel based on one woman's experience in the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence. Rehana Haque is a widow whose children, Sohail, 20, and Maya, 17, are both deeply involved in the resistance to the Pakistani takeover. When Sohail asks her to use the building she owns behind her house as a guerilla refuge and a place where a wounded Bengali major is recovering, she reluctantly agrees. But soon, Rehana is caught up in the turmoil and realizes that although she fears for her children's lives, she must support them as the invasion ensues. A heart-wrenching story that may be the first volume of a proposed trilogy.

Your Tudor Tutor

Today would be the 501st anniversary for King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catharine of Aragon. I'm not sure what the correct present is for that specific anniversary, but I don't know that I'd be accepting whatever it would be from Henry.

King Henry VIII has fascinated many people, though, regrettably, mostly because of his six marriages (two of which ended in divorce, and two more in beheading). However, it may interest you that these are not his only...accomplishments.

Some notable books on the Tudor king which do not focus on his matrimonial issues include The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII And The Dissolution Of The Monasteries and Henry VIII: The King And His Court.

However, if you'd like to go the more traditional route, you'll have plenty of choices: The Wives of Henry VIII, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII among them.

Of course, there are also historical fiction books that contain the infamous king. While they are not necessarily as accurate as the non-fiction, they are just as entertaining, if not more so. The oldest of these would be Shakespeare's play, given the regal name Henry VIII. Among the more recent, there is the "autobiography" by Margaret George, as well as the well-known The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Though, my personal favorite is not a book at all, but the Showtime television series The Tudors.

You may even want to take a look at his children. Each one showed off one bit of his overbearing personality. And I can guarantee one of them is probably just as interesting as he was.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #211

Perhaps this is one of the hardest blogs for me to write. I finished the book some weeks ago and have been thinking about it. I worried that whatever I write here is not going to do the book justice. My expectations were naturally high for Julie Orringer's debut novel The Invisible Bridge, coming 7 years after her prizewinning collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater, and it did not disappoint.

This stunning and richly detailed WWII saga is not (as a lot of early readers feared) just another Holocaust novel. It opens with 22 year-old Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew, a highly prized scholarship to study architecture in Paris and an unlikely love affair with the much older Klara, amidst the growing tide of anti-Semitism which eventually forces their return to Hungary. Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Klara acts as a beacon. "Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love."

Cinematic in its settings, moving without being sentimental, "Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly." Don't just take my word for it, read the New York Times review.

Julie Orringer grew up in New Orleans and Ann Arbor. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow and Marsh McCall Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University and the Helen Herzog Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Visit Julie's website.

**= Starred reviews

BBC Historical Drama: Part 4

Part 4 – Sarah Waters, William Golding, Anne Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Flora Thompson, John Balderston

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction based in England. With images from those books/novels in mind, I started checking out different historical dramas, the best of which I've seen are from BBC. Step into the 1800s and get involved of the lives of Nan Astley, Edmund, Helen Graham, Fancy Day, and Laura Timmins!

Tipping the Velvet is a colorful passionate drama about a lesbian, Nan Astley, and the relationships she finds, including one with her music hall co-star, Kitty. When Kitty decides to marry a man, Nan must find a way to survive the heartbreak of her first love. The book the screenplay was adapted from shares the same title and was written by Sarah Waters.

Based off of William Golding’s unforgettable sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth tells the story of a young aristocrat that sets sail to a new governmental post in Australia. However, Edmund soon discovers how naïve and unaware he is hurtling into this adventure.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a miniseries based off of one of the published works of lesser known Bronte sister, Anne Bronte. In this controversial (at the time it was written) story, Helen Graham tries to rescue herself and her son from her husband who has become a lecherous drunk.

Under the Greenwood Tree is a light romance, a bit different that better known works by Thomas Hardy. Fancy Day is a young woman who comes home to take care of her ailing father. She returns home to her small village, to the unexpected advances of three distinct gentlemen.

Developed from Flora Thompson’s trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford, is an ongoing BBC Series that’s in its third season. In this series, Laura Timmins moves from the smaller village of Lark Rise, to the larger town of Candleford, to live with her cousin and find work. Laura finds herself surprised at the vast difference of the pace of life and scandals that occur in Candleford in comparison with Lark Rise.

Berkeley Square tells a story from an early 20th century perspective, more specifically; 1902 (had to throw this in the mix!). Berkeley Square is actually based on a play written by John L. Balderston. In this play and miniseries, three young nannies get jobs with well-to-do London families in this coming-of-age-tale that has been compared with Road to Avonlea.

If you’ve missed previous parts of my BBC Historical Drama blog, you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

BBC Historical Drama: Part 3

Part 3 - Charles Dickens

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction based in England. With images from those books/novels in mind, I started checking out different historical dramas, the best of which I've seen are from BBC. Step into the 1800s and get involved of the lives of two Martin Chuzzlewits, Lady Deadlock, Thomas Gradgrind, and Noddy Boffin.

Martin Chuzzlewit described as an “opulent narrative feast” is the story of two Martin Chuzzlewits, one a elderly wealthy gentleman that despises his scheming relatives that hope to win his fortune, the other; his grandson, a well-meaning egoistic youth that has fallen in love with his Grandfather’s ward.

Bleak House is said to be one of Dickens best adaptations, following the life of Lady Deadlock, a faithful and dutiful wife whose secret is about to be discovered which leads to blackmail, murder, and a tragic death.

Thomas Gradgrind, father of Louisa and Tom, teaches them to live with reason and practicality instead of emotion and imagination, which in turn makes Louisa cold and distant yet yearn for love and Tom a drunk and a gambler. Will Thomas realize that what he preaches to his children may eventually lead them to their downfall? This is the story of Hard Times.

Our Mutual Friend is a dark and involved yet romantic portrayal of how lives are affected and transformed after the heir to a large garbage made fortune drowns.

AADL also owns several miniseries based off of better known works of Charles Dickens, such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Old Curiosity Shop, and of course A Tale of Two Cities.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one Dickens series we have on DVD that was not made by BBC.

A few Dickens novels turned miniseries that we do not have on DVD, but do have in print are: Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son and Barnaby Rudge

If you’ve missed previous parts of my BBC Historical Drama blog, you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2.

BBC Historical Drama: Part 2

Part 2 – George Eliot

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction based in England. With images from those books/novels in mind, I started checking out different historical dramas, the best of which I've seen are from BBC. Step into the 1800s and get involved of the lives of Daniel Deronda, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, Adam Bede, Silas Marner and Maggie Tulliver. The following five programs are based off of works from George Eliot. George Eliot is in fact Mary Anne Evans, who wrote under a male pen name so that her work would be taken seriously.

Daniel Deronda is a film concerned with two strong-willed young people whose self-determination is under attack by legal constraints on their rights to an inheritance, the noble yet illegitimate Daniel and also the fiery vivacious Gwendolyn.

Middlemarch is the widely acclaimed mini-series featuring a talented and engaging cast. When an idealistic gentleman, Dr. Tertius Lydgate moves to Middlemarch with the expectation of running a charity hospital, he is surprised to find that not all of the town supports his modern medical practices.
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By all accounts, Adam Bede is a very headstrong man with a very black and white view of the world, like a fair percentage of men of that period. Once he learns that the beautiful farm girl Hetty is undeniably attached to his wealthy friend Arthur, he believes their relationship is based on falsehood and begins to plot to gain the Hetty’s affections for himself.

Silas Marner is perhaps Eliot’s best known work and is the story of a man who is wrongly accused of theft in a very religious community and is forced to move elsewhere. Marner (played beautifully by Ben Kingsley), closes himself off to society until he takes in a baby girl and starts to raise her as his own.

The Mill on the Floss tells the tale of Maggie Tulliver and her up-tight ambitious brother Tom and their cousin Lucy, who is more often than not, the peacemaker between the two. When she becomes older, Maggie’s interest in her neighbor Phillip Wakem is unwelcome according to her brother, who is enemies with a Phillip’s relative.

If you’ve missed part one of my BBC Historical Drama blog, you can find it here: Part 1.

BBC Historical Drama: Part 1

Part 1 – Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction based in England. With images from those books/novels in mind, I started checking out different historical dramas, the best of which I've seen are from BBC. Step into the 1800s and get involved of the lives of Louis and his wife, Emily Trevelyan, Augustus Melmotte and Margaret Hale.

He Knew He was Right is an adaptation of an Anthony Trollope novel that follows the breakdown of a marriage of a newly married young couple, due to the husband’s jealousy and insecurity.

The Way We Live Now is a Trollope narrative that centers on Augustus Melmotte, an Austrian Jewish financier and his attempts to become a proper English Gentleman, among various subplots and subterfuge.

The library also has a copy of Anthony Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles. A lawsuit aimed at church reform forces a decent clergyman into a moral crisis. Alan Rickman co-stars in this seven episode series.

The miniseries Wives & Daughters boasts misguided stepmothers, romantic betrayals, and secret marriages to keep you entertained and is based off of written works by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Cranford, which was adapted from a Gaskell novel, stars two of Britain’s paramount actresses, Judi Dench, and Imelda Staunton. In this film, the women of Cranford deal with the changing events that come with “progression.”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South is by far my favorite BBC Miniseries. It follows the life of Margaret Hale, a middle class woman who is forced to move to a working class city when her father leaves his post at the church for lack of religious conviction. Having grown up in the country and also living in high society London with her wealthier aunt and cousin, “the North” represents a new challenge for Margaret. Around them are class struggles between the workers and mill owners and ideological struggles between the industrial North and the agrarian South. In Milton, Margaret clashes with her father’s new friend Mr. Thornton, when she sees him treat one of his mill workers harshly. Romantic entanglement follows.

An Instance of the Fingerpost

An Instance of the Fingerpost

“We are all capable of the most monstrous evil when convinced that we are right and it was an age when the madness of conviction held all tightly in its grasp.”

At nearly 700 pages, reading An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, takes some commitment, but it is well worth the journey. Pears weaves a complex, sprawling, convoluted tale of politics, passion, betrayal, faith and scientific zeal, and, of course, murder. Set in the turbulent era of Restoration England (1660s), with its attendant political, intellectual and religious strife, it captures all the uncertainty, suspicion and speculation of the time. It is, in the end, an exploration of the very nature of perception and truth.

The plot pivots around the question of who poisoned an Oxford fellow. Four narrators, with differing degrees of reliability, each take turns relaying their account of the event and all the intricate history which surrounds it. All four accounts are completely different, but are given as full and honest disclosures, and are believed to be true by each teller, even while each is laboring under his own hidden and heart-wrenching history. The web of secrets surrounding the murder becomes more tangled with each tale. An “instance of the fingerpost”, from a quote by Francis Bacon, is that piece of truth which suddenly, fully and finally sheds light on opposing and uncertain conclusions and decisively reveals the object of the quest for understanding. With the fourth narrator, the veils of misperception and deceit lift and we have the fingerpost promised in the title.

Written with finely-wrought, eloquent language and revealing all the danger, turmoil and devotion of the human heart, this is a story that does not disappoint.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

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