Posts filed under ‘History’

Featured Genre Friday: Historical Sagas

ImageOnly Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer / Pub Date: Aug 2011 / 400 pgs

The first in a planned 5-book series called The Clifton Chronicles (books 2 and 3 were published in 2012 and 2013, respectively, with books 4 and 5 still to come), Only Time Will Tell follows Harry Clifton, the only son of hardscrabble, hardworking Maisie Clifton and her dearly departed husband Arthur, an English dockworker.  Or… he? Harry could in fact be the son of the wealthy Hugo Barrington, whose family owns the shipyard that had employed Arthur Clifton and Maisie’s brother, Stan.  And just how had Arthur Clifton died, anyway? Had Hugo played a role in his mysterious disappearance?

Overcoming the odds of his humble life, Harry wins a vocal scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, where he befriends Hugo Barrington’s son, Giles.  Harry and Giles soon become inseparable, and at Giles’ birthday party, a twelve-year-old Harry meets Emma Barrington–Giles’ younger sister– for the first time.  Harry is charmed by the Barrington family, but Giles’ father seems to take an instant dislike to young Harry.  Like it or not, the Cliftons and the Barringtons will be inextricably linked for years to come.

Archer’s epic tale has elements of a soap opera, yes, but even I–not usually a soap opera fan–thoroughly enjoyed the story and characters.  The characters were rather “stock,” but well-developed enough that I truly cared about them and was interested in what happened.  I rooted for the “good” characters while gasping at the dastardly deeds of others.  In fact, Harry’s lowly upbringing, boarding school experience, and his predestination for greater things bring to mind another Harry. (Potter, anyone?)  Fans of BBC dramas such as Downton Abbey might also particularly enjoy Archer’s sumptuous, satisfying tale.

ImageThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende / Pub Date: 1982 / 520 pgs

For a more literary feel, try Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.   Allende published this, her first novel, in 1982, and was soon considered the heir(ess) apparent to Latin American literary great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Allende’s novel unfolds slowly, treating the reader to much description and setting up a sense of place.  The South American country is never named, but is understood to be Chile. (Allende herself is a cousin of ousted Chilean president Salvadore Allende.)  We start at the turn of the twentieth century in the childhood home of Clara del Valle, an ethereal, clairvoyant girl who predicts major events in her family.  Clara eventually marries Esteban Trueba, a hacienda owner originally intended for her late sister, Rosa the Beautiful.  We follow this pair, their children and eventual grandchildren, as Allende’s timeline traces important events in Chilean history, climaxing with the 1973 coup.

A big part of Allende’s style is magical realism, where magical elements exist in an otherwise realistic setting (Rosa the Beautiful’s green hair and yellow eyes, for instance, or Clara’s prophesies).  This will require a degree of suspension of disbelief.  However, readers looking for an epic literary tale spanning many years and several generations, with a political backdrop, will have much to celebrate here.



December 13, 2013 at 5:24 pm Leave a comment

Featured Contributor Friday

This week we are lucky to have another thought-provoking review from Marie, our periodicals librarian who also works in the Children’s Department:

Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton

Pub Date: March 2010

Fiction (Adult)

256 pgs.

We’re all familiar with the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’ve got another quote to remember: “Don’t judge a book by its title”. Numerous times during the year, the library staff receives free advanced copies of books before the book officially goes on sale. This is an excellent means to promote new material by authors and book distributors. This historical novel kept getting pushed aside by this reader thinking it was one of those “steamy” Harlequin type romantic novel. That was a gigantic mistake.

Do impatience and desire stir up our thoughts in terms of historical fiction? In this reader’s case, the answer is NO! Impatient with Desire is truly a very tender love story of an overwhelming and treacherous journey that the Donner family and thirty two other people embarked on in search of a better life for their families in what is now California.

Imagine the USA back in 1846. This country was about seventy years old and the government of California was giving away large tracts of land to anyone who “desired” to settle there. The heroine of this novel is Tamsen Dozier Donner who actually grew up in Newburyport, MA. She was a woman filled with an adventurous and romantic spirit. Her father said she should have been born a boy! As a schoolteacher living in Springfield, Illinois, she meets up and marries her second husband, George Donner. He brought to the marriage 2 daughters and together they had 3 more girls. Both are great lovers of adventure and with their devotion to one another and their families they set off on the Oregon Trail. They packed up everything they owned to move twenty five hundred miles to a place they had never seen!

The epic journey started well joining with others along the way. Then things started going badly making wrong choices on trails to take, arguments amongst themselves and just plain bad luck. By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains winter had arrived in full force, and eighty one people were trapped in the mountains with limited amounts of food and supplies.

What does one do to survive? The author through careful study of journal entries and letters gives the reader an unpleasant taste of survival at all cost. Impatient with Desire is a tragedy filled with romance, tenderness and strength of personal character. What really happened in those four and half months of entrapment is a true test of the romantic spirit. It is a story of an American dream that turned into a real nightmare. Read this historical novel. I guarantee it will stay with you for a long time.  -Marie

August 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm 1 comment

Featured Genre Friday: Narrative Nonfiction

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

Pub Date: Feb. 2003

Non-fiction (History / True Crime)

Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a wonderful read for non-fiction lovers and reluctant non-fiction readers alike. Larson tells us the story of the World’s Columbian Exposition–better known as the World’s Fair–that took place in Chicago in 1893. The genesis and execution of the Fair would have made a wonderful story by itself.  The reader learns many random facts–the first zipper and the first electric dishwasher, among other things, made their debut as this Fair–and the colorful, crazy descriptions of the many exhibitions–pygmys! Turkish belly-dancers!–provide a suitably entertaining read.  We also learn about the Fair’s difficult path to greatness, starting with the choice of Chicago as the setting and the appointment of the chief architect, Daniel Burnham. But what makes this story riveting is the real-life creepiness taking place mere steps away from the merriment of the Fair.  A young doctor calling himself H.H. Holmes moves into the White City and begins luring young single women to his massive “World’s Fair Hotel.” Unimaginable things are housed within, and somehow, the young women never return. Holmes’ story, coupled with the general bizarreness of the Fair itself makes for an unforgettable read.

Other suggestions:


A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel / Pub Date: Mar. 2001 / 288 pgs.

Kimmel’s comforting, nostalgic memoir of “growing up small in Mooreland, Indiana” in the 1970s and 80s.

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride / Pub Date: Jan. 1996 / 256 pgs.

McBride’s moving and inspirational story of being raised in poverty by his mother–a Polish Jew who traveled to New York City by way of the American South.


Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo / Pub Date: Sept. 2004 / 273 pgs.

The story of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919. (See my review from September: )

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil : A Savannah Story by John Berendt / Pub. Date: Jan. 1994 / 400 pgs.

The eccentric folks of Savannah, Georgia as encountered by travel journalist Berendt.


In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson / Pub. Date: June 2000 / 320 pgs.

Bryson’s is an always-appreciated voice in the travelogue set; this time he takes on Australia.

November 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm Leave a comment

Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo

dark_tidePub Date: Sept. 2004

Non-Fiction (Local history)

273 pgs.

In 1919, 21 people in Boston’s North End were killed by a tidal wave of gooey molasses.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you go, what?! Especially the first time you hear about it, be it from relatives who lived through the disaster, from the small plaque in Boston that pays tribute to the molasses flood’s victims, or from this book, the first full-length book ever written on the subject, by historian Stephen Puleo.

Puleo has researched the flood extensively and is quite good at setting the scene. The book is split roughly into three parts; in the first, Puleo tells us about the tank’s construction, a hurried one with little regard for safety. He also brings us into the minds of the eventual victims, mostly working-class immigrants, as they go about their days in the year or so prior to the tank’s collapse.  In the second part, Puleo describes the tank’s actual collapse in minute detail.  In the third, Puleo covers the trial of United States Industrial Alcohol, or USIA–the owners of the tank, against a group of plaintiffs–the families of the dead and injured.

At times, reading this book, I could swear I was reading a novel.  Puleo manages to please both fiction and non-fiction readers alike by weaving in rich narratives of different individuals along with quite a few facts about the historical and political landscape of the mid-1910’s to the mid-1920’s.  He goes into the very active anarchist movement in Boston at that time, as well as the famous Sacco-Vanzetti trial.  Reading the book, 1919 begins to feel very much like 2009: Big Business corporations pitted against the little guy; issues of immigrants’ rights; the safety of residents in low-income areas; the anti-war sentiment.  I really recommend this book for the timeliness of the subject, Puleo’s fluid yet factual and informative writing style, and the newfound ability of you, the reader, to educate your friends about an old, little-known and surreal disaster.

P.S. Dark Tide was the TTL Book Club pick for September and the author, Stephen Puleo, will be reading and signing books at the Gould Barn this coming Monday, September 21st at 7pm.

P.P.S. Stay tuned for the return of the genre study next week!

September 18, 2009 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n Roll by Elijah Wald

beatles Pub Date: June 2009

Non-Fiction (Music history)

336 pgs.

First of all, I think it should be a requirement for any book about music or music history to be available on audio.   I would have so loved to listen to this book instead of read it, so I could enjoy not only Wald’s historical narrative but also hear, in the background, the very music he’s describing.

The biggest thing that stands out about this book is its misleading title.  The Beatles themselves actually play a very small part in this book. Wald’s larger point is, in fact, that everything we know about music history is wrong.  The Beatles may not have “destroyed” rock and roll, but nor should they be the hailed as the best and only musical innovators of their time, Wald argues. “Certain stories and images are recycled ad infinitum,” Wald writes, “and alternative stories and images are ignored or disappear entirely as witnesses die and papers are thrown away.”  He delves deeply into popular music of the first quarter of the twentieth century, focusing on jazz and ragtime.  In fact, he doesn’t even get to the Beatles’ era until towards the end of the book, like how your 7th grade history teacher would spend the entire semester on the Revolution and the Civil War and save the last 2 weeks for everything that happened in the last 150 years. The book was a bit dry, but I am very interested in the music of the 1910’s and 20’s  so I enjoyed it.  I also happen to be watching Ken Burns’ wonderful Jazz documentary at the same time, so it was like I was taking a course on the subject.  There are a lot of “alternative” histories published nowadays, from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. If you enjoy those books, and music history,  and have ever wanted to find both in one place, Elijah Wald is your man.

September 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm Leave a comment

Columbine by Dave Cullen

columbine-coverPublication date: April 2009

Non-fiction (True crime)

432 pgs.

What an un-put-downable book. One of the most haunting I’ve read in a long time. It’s been a little while since I’ve delved into the True Crime genre—formerly a favorite of mine—but when I started reading Columbine everything else I was doing fell away.

Dave Cullen dispels many of the myths the public still associates with Columbine, one of the most searing school shootings in recent history. It turns out Cassie Bernall, the girl who famously answered “yes” to the question “Do you believe in God?” before being shot to death, probably didn’t say anything. The two killers were not part of the “Trench Coat Mafia;” instead, they had friends, one even had a prom date. Their upbringings were not terrible; on the contrary, the book’s portrayal of Dylan Klebold’s parents, in particular, was one of involved, caring pacifists.

And that’s what’s so scary.

Cullen paints an intriguing, convincing portrait of Eric Harris, a “born psychopath,” and Dylan Klebold, a depressive follower. I was not sure I would particularly want to revisit the story of the massacre, ten years later, especially since I was in high school myself when the Columbine massacre occurred. However, Mr. Cullen’s exhaustively thorough, painstakingly researched conclusions and the good deal of psychology thrown in there (I have always been interested in psychopathology in particular and was considering psychology or criminal justice as a major in college) made it worth it. Having been compared to In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter, this book would appeal to anyone who wonders about human nature.

June 9, 2009 at 3:31 am Leave a comment

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