Category Archives: Reviews

Eleanor Marx: A Life

Written by Rachel Holmes
Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 15, 2016)

Review by Bonnie Stanard

I stayed up until after 2:00 AM finishing Rachel Holmes’ well-documented biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. I couldn’t go to sleep once I got into the dirty dealings of the nefarious Edward Aveling. The last two chapters lay the groundwork for another book that addresses the dichotomy of Eleanor’s way of life versus her way of death.

Here’s my take on the book:

It provides a sweeping picture of socialist movements of latter 19th Century England, touching on France and Germany. This is a character study of Eleanor Marx only in so much as it relates to her career. She was an indefatigable person of enviable intellect in promoting her father’s principles. Her life was given to travel, organizing labor, writing and promoting the rights of workers.

In advocating an eight-hour day, age limits for employing children, and more humane treatment of women, she met a swell of opposition and wasn’t one to falter. With youthful boldness she faced ridicule and rejection from colleagues and powerful businessmen.

For many years she lived hand to mouth, moved from one shabby place to another, and persisted with enthusiasm to promote a socialist agenda. This won her many friends and admirers, especially among people working in sweatshops.

Holmes has given Eleanor the character of a person who faced obstacles with determination, energy, and sagacity. That she was the unlikeliest of persons to commit suicide is not the focus of this book. Eleanor’s devotion was first and foremost to her father’s social philosophy. That she gave up this cause and took her life when faced with her lover’s betrayal is covered in one short chapter at the end of the book. Worse yet, the lover-cum-conman who betrayed her inherited her estate.

The book’s concluding scenario is reason enough for another biography. This is not meant as a criticism of Holmes’ book, which is a fine introduction to the socialist scene at the time Eleanor Marx lived. 

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Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as The American Journal of Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana. She has published six historical fiction novels and a children’s book. She lives in South Carolina. 

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Warlight


Written by Michael Ondaatje

Review by Cecily Blench

‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.

The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.

In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.

The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.

Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.

The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?

The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.

Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.

Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.

Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.

There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).

Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.

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Cecily Blench is a writer and editor based in London. She has a particular interest in historical fiction and travel writing and is working on her first (historical) novel. 

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Seeking Historical Novel Reviews

Do you write reviews of historical novels? The Copperfield Review is actively seeking submissions of historical novel reviews, including subgenres such as historical mysteries, romance, even historical fantasy. We also accept submissions of reviews of nonfiction history books and biographies of historical figures, as well as nonfiction books about writing and creativity.

We publish reprints, so if your review has appeared on your own blog or elsewhere and you have the rights, we will consider it for publication. Be sure to check our guidelines for how to submit your work.

We’re looking forward to reading your submissions. Please repost if you know of other fans of historical fiction who write book reviews!

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The Sins of Jubal Cooper

Written by Mary Lingerfelt.

Published by Amazon Digital Services LLC.

Review by Harry Andrew Miller

The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.

Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.

As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.

For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.

I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.

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Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.

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My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Published by HarperCollins

Review by Irene Colthurst

So few accounts of the American Revolutionary era begin in the midst of the fighting after 1776 and then stretch through the fragile 1780s and tumultuous 1790s.   The life story of Alexander Hamilton, however, demands exactly that frame. So does that of his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler Hamilton. The runaway success of a certain Broadway musical re-introduced the American public to that period and sparked interest in its other major figures.  The appeal of My Dear Hamilton, therefore, is its promise to go “beyond the hype” of Hamilton the musical to examine Elizabeth Schuyler’s entire long life.  It’s one of several novels in the last few years, including another from authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie themselves, that look more deeply at the American revolutionary era through the eyes of women.  Here they give us Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler in her own voice, framed as her reminiscence in old age, as she grapples with and yet fights for Hamilton’s legacy. Dray and Kamoie succeed in giving us an intimate view of the era that inherently challenges many of the cherished images that the prominent members of the revolutionary generation hold in the American public’s imagination.  In doing so, they have written a novel considered among the best historical fiction of 2018.

The novel opens in the mid-1820s as James Monroe makes a visit to a Eliza in late middle age.  She then tries to explain to the reader why she received him so coldly, prompting her to relate her life story as if building one of her husband’s legal arguments.  She begins by noting, “I was a patriot in my own right before I ever met Alexander Hamilton”. Chronicling their courtship and early marriage, as well as Hamilton’s rise to power, Eliza reveals a life that alternated between private moments of family joy and the public contentions and social disruptions whose effects strained her marriage.  The cycle became almost predictable as the narrative spun on through the 1790s and the infamous Reynolds affair, and beyond. Hamilton’s appeals for forgiveness and declarations of love often seemed overwrought, and it could be hard to know how much of his pleading to “his angel” was due to his lawyerly character and guilty conscience, and what was narrative necessity.  

The authors are disciplined in their depiction of only Eliza’s direct experience of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. They also succeed in letting Eliza demonstrate how much more than a wronged wife she always was. Eventually, the narrative ends up back at the meeting of Eliza and Monroe.  To drive towards that conclusion, Dray and Kamoie let the frame of Eliza’s older perspective weigh perhaps too heavily upon the story as it unfolds. Readers are given her feelings in the moment, and then immediately her late reconsiderations of those feelings. The message of the frame story is that we are not supposed to lose ourselves too much in this novel, but it is impossible not to.  

Overall the novel is alive with intimate detail and fascinating historical echoes for our own time. Elizabeth Schuyler’s evolution into a political wife and a reluctant champion of her husband’s complicated legacy is rendered with a strong moral intensity.  Her perspective is the Federalist perspective, which goes unexplored in most depictions of the early American republic. Dray and Kamoie do not shy away from letting Elizabeth Schuyler show herself as a daughter of privilege whose political views are based on a love of martial heroism, terror and contempt for the mob, and a patronizing dismissiveness towards the common people outside of her charity work.   

Ironically, Dray and Kamoie can bring Eliza’s elite Federalist perspective to life because of the rise of social history, a discipline dedicated to broadening the narrative beyond the elite men of the US Founding generation to the Natives Eliza treated with as a young woman the enslaved in her father’s household, and the common whites she was disdainful of. Now insights from social history have come to historical fiction about the American Revolution.  My Dear Hamilton is a worthy entry alongside other recent Revolutionary War novels by and from the perspective of women, such as The Devil Take Tomorrow by Gretchen Jeannette.  Like them, it is romantic in a way that echoes but is more serious than the literature of the period itself. Unlike them, it lets the story continue into the less romantic days of post-revolutionary politics, grief, and imperfect union.  None of them claims to be “The Red Badge of Courage for the American Revolution”, an iconic literary rendering of the war.  That is unnecessary, for these novels are evocative works in their own particular way.

In giving us Eliza’s whole life, and her own case for that life in the face of consuming grief in a democratizing nation whose direction she only eventually reconciled herself to, we get a woman who is ultimately as tragically and valiantly human as her husband.

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Irene Colthurst is a reviewer with the Historical Novel Society. She lives in San Diego.

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Everything I Never Told You

Written by Celeste Ng

Published by Penguin Books

Review by Meredith Allard

 

Some readers may argue against my classifying Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng as historical fiction. The story takes place in the not-so-distant past of the 1970s, but as someone who lived through those years reading the story did bring on a sense of nostalgia. In some ways, life seemed more simple then. There were no cell phones, no social media. You had actually use a rotary phone to contact people, and there were these things called typewriters, kids, where you needed ribbons and messy liquid paper to fix those pesky typos. We can have a discussion about how far in the past something has to be in order to qualify as historical fiction. We can also discuss whether or not nostalgia in itself is enough to qualify something as historical fiction. My rationale for including Everything I Never Told You as historical fiction is that, while the story about a family mourning the death of its teenage daughter is timeless, the story itself may have looked different if it took place in the 21st century.

Teenager Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, but being the favorite child isn’t as wonderful for Lydia as you might think. She carries the weight of both of her parents unfulfilled dreams—her father’s insecurities being about Chinese and feeling as though he never fit in, and her mother’s unfulfillment at feeling destined to the life of a traditional housewife, thereby never meeting her true potential as a woman in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. When Lydia is found drowned, the carefully woven family fabric begins to unravel, and everyone in the family, including Lydia’s older brother and younger sister, is forced to confront what they knew, or what they thought they knew, about their family.

Everything I Never Told You is a family story about how often we don’t know the people we’re supposed to be closest to. Ng does a wonderful job sharing each character’s perspectives, and we understand James and Marilyn, or at least we understand why they acted as they did. Yes, it would have been nice if there were more self-reflection among the characters while Lydia was alive, but that’s not particularly realistic. Often, we don’t recognize where we could have done better until after the fact. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we may even see some of our own family dynamics reflected in the story. There’s that old saying from Maya Angelou—when people do, they do the best they know how to do. That’s what James and Marilyn do in Everything I Never Told You—they did the best they knew how to do. And that’s all anyone can do in any given moment.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill

Written by Mary Sharratt

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review by Meredith Allard

 

I was drawn to Daughters of the Witching Hill because of my interest in witch hunts and witch trials, and Mary Sharratt did not disappoint. The story is based on historical details and transcripts from the real-life 1612 Pendle witch hunt.

The novel starts with an interesting premise. What if some of the people accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt actually practiced magic? Daughters of the Witching Hill begins with Bess Southerns, known as Mother Demdike, a poor woman living with her children in Pendle Forest. She discovers a familiar, delves into magic, and develops a reputation as a cunning woman, which is considered different than a witch because cunning women use their powers to heal and not hurt people. The magic works both for and against Bess and those she cares for most. Bess’ granddaughter Alizon, is afraid of the magic her grandmother possesses, but Bess’ best friend since girlhood embraces the dark side of magic. Bess is betrayed by her own family—some who testify against her willingly, and some who don’t. Bess, Alizon, and others are accused of witchcraft and may suffer the ultimate consequence because of one man determined to make his name as a witch finder.

The novel caught me from the first page through Bess’ narrative voice. When Alizon takes over the narrative later in the story, her voice is just as powerful. Mary Sharratt does what the best historical novelists do so well—she weaves facts of the time period, details about food, clothing, work—seamlessly into the plot. Through Bess, we see what life was like for poor people in late 16th and early 17th century England. Work was hard to find, and poor people had to travel from place to place asking if there was any work. There were times when Bess and her family went hungry. There were famines when many people died. Magic provided Bess and her family with an income as well as some respect—at least until Bess begins to age and lose some of her potency as a healer. As someone from the poor end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Bess and her family are vulnerable to the whims of those with higher status. Sharratt does a fine job showing the precarious nature of life for poor people like Bess and Alizon.

If you’re interested in witch hunts or witch trials, you will love Daughters of the Witching Hill. This is also a great read for those interested in 16th and 17th-century English life.

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Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Written by Samantha Silva

Published by Flatiron Books

288 pages

Review by Meredith Allard

 

The caveat for this novel comes after the story where author Samantha Silva notes what most of us figured out while we were reading–that this is not a biographical sketch of how A Christmas Carol came to be but an imaginative “What if” about how Dickens might have come to write the world’s second most famous Christmas story. The Dickensians among us might easily fall into the trap of thinking “This didn’t happen,” “That didn’t happen,” and “There’s no way on earth that ever happened.” To fully enjoy this book we need to leave what we know about Dickens aside and simply enjoy the novel for what it is, a sweet retelling of the classic story using Dickens himself as the Scrooge who needs to discover the true meaning of Christmas. I highly recommend this novel for those who love Dickens, love his Carol, and are looking for a unique retelling of the tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Maid of Baikal: A Speculative Historical Novel of the Russian Civil War

Written by Preston Fleming

Review from The Copperfield Review

 

 

Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming is a speculative historical novel, as it states in the book’s title. Fans of traditional historical fiction should be warned that this is a “What if?” novel based on the question “What if the White Russian army won the Russian civil war?”

The story of Maid of Baikal centers around Zhanna Dorokhina, a romanticized version of Joan of Arc who strives to beat back the Bolsheviks through military force. Like Joan of Arc, Zhanna believes she is on a divine mission as she leads her army, in this case the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks. The battle scenes were well written and compelling, and I found myself rooting for Zhanna to win. I felt as though I was there in Russia since the descriptions were so vivid and specific.

As an avid reader of historical fiction I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Normally I don’t care for alternative historical fiction because it defies the reason I like to read historical fiction, which is that I get to learn about the past. Even though some of the details presented in Maid of Baikal are the result of imagination, there is still a lot of history to learn here about the Bolsheviks, the Russian civil war, and Russia itself.

Creating a Tolstoy-like epic, Fleming shares a realistic, vivid world within the Russian civil war with rich, multi-dimensional characters that reveal various aspects of humanity as seen in war time, all made more fascinating by the question “What if?” If you love historical fiction and you’re open to speculative circumstances different to that of historical facts, then you will enjoy Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming. Readers with an interest in Russia and Russian history will also enjoy this novel.

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Soaring With Vultures

Written by Dan Kelly

Review from The Copperfield Review

 

I was pleasantly surprised by Dan Kelly’s novel Soaring With Vultures. Soaring With Vultures takes place in Missouri after the end of the Civil War, and though the war itself has ended there is still violence to contend with. Soaring With Vultures is told from the point of view of Leslie Warner, who must watch as his family suffers in the aftermath of the war. Leslie’s sister, Sallie, is embroiled in a bitter divorce, and Sam Nutter, the man she divorces, is a less than savory character. Nutter wages his own war against the Warner family, leading to a murder trial.

Soaring With Vultures has the feel of a western with good guys versus bad guys, so fans of westerns will particularly like this novel. Author Dan Kelly manages to make the murder trial suspenseful, not an easy task when so many murder trials abound in books, television, and film. The history shared in Soaring With Vultures is particularly fascinating, especially for readers who haven’t read much about life during this post Civil War period in Missouri. The story is based on true life events, which adds a certain validity for fans of historical fiction who like their fiction to contain as much historical fact as possible. Soaring With Vultures has been carefully researched, and Kelly has paid a lot of attention to detail, also important elements for fans of historical fiction.

Kelly has an easy to read, conversational writing style, and he pulls readers into the story through allowing the characters, and the facts, to speak for themselves. Readers with a taste for post Civil War fiction, westerns, or murder mysteries will enjoy Soaring With Vultures.

 

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